American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition Roars Through Pittsburgh

Throughout the history of America, our tapestry has been woven with stories of innovation, evolution, growth, development, progress, and a constant struggle for and achievement of basic freedoms all men and women should be granted. These collective efforts have put our great nation and its many pioneers and trailblazers at the forefront of global leadership, transforming a land mass discovered centuries ago into a burgeoning epicenter where life, liberty, and the pursuit of the greatest ideals life can offer are up for grabs, thus leading to millions of people flocking to its open doors each and every day.

An epic, life-altering period in our country unfolded from 1920 to 1933 when one of life’s greatest pleasures – the ability to relax and unwind with an adult beverage of choice at one’s leisure – went away. Well, by legal means, anyway. Forces rose that kept the booze flowing, stemming a series of historic events riddled with uncertainty and corruption which forced the powers that be to repeal, for the first time in our nation’s history, a Constitutional law.

American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, a traveling exhibit from the National Constitution Center, tells the story of the great Roaring 20s and the Prohibition Era and will be on display at The Senator John Heinz History Center beginning Saturday, February 10th thru June 10th, 2018. The History Center, known as the “Smithsonian’s home in Pittsburgh,” will be featuring a series of events over the course of the next four months and will give you a unique opportunity to travel back in time to experience this period in American history through rare artifacts, immersive displays, interactive activities, and more.

The 1920s represented a wild, confusing, historic time in our nation’s timeline. It was an era comprised of bootleggers, flappers, gangsters, speakeasies, suffragists, temperance seekers and unbridled rebellion…all fueled by something we take for granted this day and age. Americans just wanted a damn drink and ‘the man’ said no.

It’s nearly impossible to comprehend the fact that a country founded on the philosophy of freedom passed a law that made the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal. Especially when you consider the presence these liquids had in early American culture from the onset of the original colonies. Seriously, go look up how much booze was consumed at the first Constitutional Convention – the volume consumed in one session at a local tavern would lead anyone to believe our founding fathers were, at the very least, “problem drinkers.”

But it happened. A country that saw the average American consume 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor a year, equivalent to four shots a day, by 1830, and a spike in the number of saloons from 100,000 to 300,000 by 1900 due to the millions of immigrants making their way to the United States officially made enjoying a fermented beverage illegal on January 7th, 1920 when the 18th Amendment officially went into effect.

The next decade set the tone for the overall direction beer, wine, and spirits would take throughout the rest of time, including today. The speakeasy, a secret bar or nightclub where only patrons who knew the password could enter and imbibe, became a monumental entity, despite its original incarnation and namesake dating back to the 1880s. Some could say these watering holes forged a path for modern bar and tavern layouts today. Passwords for entry not withstanding.

The National Crime Syndicate rose to power during this era as well, with criminals from Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York City dividing up territories, fixing prices, and making cross-territorial distributions deals that allowed alcohol to be obtained and distributed by illegal means. Notorious gangsters such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and several others were at the helm of these outfits, reaching agreements that extended far beyond the end of Prohibition.

Prohibition finally came to an end on December 5th, 1933 and Americans across the country rejoiced in the fact that yes, oh yes, happy days were “beer” again. Despite the 21st Amendment being ratified and the sale and consumption of alcohol once again achieving legal status, new liquor control laws actually made it harder to get alcoholic beverages than when it was illegal. A nationwide influx of rules and restrictions on buying, selling, and consuming alcohol rose: closing times, age limits, Sunday blue laws, and the end of brewery-owned saloons headlined the list. In other words, drinking was legal…but not entirely available.

The 9,000-square-foot exhibit brings all this and the many facets of Prohibition – before, during, and after – vividly to life. American Spirits was created in partnership with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and is the first comprehensive exhibit about what’s been dubbed ‘America’s most colorful and complex constitutional hiccup.’ From the dawn of the temperance movement through the Roaring 20s to the unprecedented repeal of a constitutional amendment, the American Spirits exhibit is rich with history, memories, and activities guaranteed to captivate…regardless of whether you fall on the side of temperance or good, old fashioned American fun!

Highlights of the exhibit include:

  • More than 180 rare artifacts, including Pittsburgh’s first “Tommy Gun,” flapper dresses, temperance propaganda, flasks used to bootleg liquor during Prohibition, and a hatchet famously flaunted by temperance advocate Carry Nation
  • Immersive areas like a re-created speakeasy – a term coined by saloon owner Kate Hester in the 1880s in McKeesport
  • Two classic Prohibition-era vehicles – a 1922 Studebaker (pictured right) and a 1932 Model 18 Ford V-8 (a favorite of John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow)
  • Wayne Wheeler’s Amazing Amendment Machine – a 20-foot-long, carnival-inspired contraption that traces how the temperance movement culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment

The exhibit also examines Pittsburgh’s deep connections to the regulations of alcohol, which has historically been known as a catalyst for civic dissent since the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791-1794. During Prohibition, Pittsburgh – with its immigrant population heavily involved in the liquor business – earned a reputation as one of the “wettest” cities in America. This distinction, many would argue, holds true today.

Several local artifacts that showcase Western PA’s long history with alcohol are part of the exhibit, including items from the region’s new wave of spirits distributors like Wigle Whiskey, Maggie’s Farm Rum, Liberty Pole Spirits, and more.

The American Spirits exhibit will be on display through June 10th, 2018, and is included with regular museum admission: $16 for adults, $14 for seniors (62+) and active duty and retired military; $6.50 for students and children ages 6-17; free for children five and under and History Center members.

The American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition exhibition is presented by The Bognar Family and sponsored by Robert J. & Bonnie Cindrich and Latasha Wilson Batch; with support from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, The Heinz Endowments, and Richard King Mellon Foundation.

For more information and to discover the full lineup of public programs centered around the exhibit, please visit

Clockwise from left: imagery that greets you as you enter the exhibit; the famous ax wielded by Carry Nation as she pushed temperance and left taverns and saloons in her wake; a replica speakeasy door with small window where gatekeepers allowed entry when given the proper password; bootleg flasks, such as “canes” and “cameras” used to sneak liquor during Prohibition.














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