SAVANNAH, Ga.--It's easy to get spoiled when the likes of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock offer free admission. You might start to take such access to cultural experience for granted.
So when a visit to Savannah's American Prohibition Museum came under consideration, I initially balked at the idea of paying for a $16 ticket. What could be worth such a hefty charge, I wondered?
After spending several hours there on a recent Sunday afternoon in this beautiful city, I got over it. It's worth every penny.
Savannah is loaded with history--a walk around its 22 serene 18th- and 19th-century squares edged with sculptures, towering trees dripping with Spanish moss, and gorgeous Victorian buildings with stories to tell--so this museum, dedicated to the prohibition of alcohol in the 20th century, reflects a much more modern era.
Opened in 2015, the museum is housed in a nearly 6,000-square-foot two-story brick-walled wooden-floored space facing the open-air City Market at 209 West St. Julian St. with 13 galleries, four cool vintage cars, a functioning speakeasy, and a theater.
Its contents take visitors back to the earliest stirrings of U.S. temperance in the 1850s before zeroing in on the early 1900s when anti-alcohol rallies, most of them fronted by activist women, started their relentless march across the country. Efforts of rabble-rousers such as hatchet-wielding saloon smasher Carrie Nation eventually led to the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which made the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal in the U.S. for 13 years.
Prohibition never got around to outlawing the actual consumption of alcohol; it simply made it, with few exceptions, illegal to produce and hard to get. But enterprising Americans found a way--many ways--around that little problem, while managing to make a few bucks in the process.
A considerable amount of space in the museum tells tales on moonshine-making bootleggers like Appalachia-based Popcorn Sutton as well as gangsters from New York mafia families (among them Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, names that are familiar to students of Hot Springs' gambling heydays, vividly described in "The Vapors" by David Hill); both made plenty of money keeping the U.S. citizenry stocked with intoxicants.
Advocates of prohibition insisted that criminal goings-on would be reduced by banning sales of alcohol. But, because that lack of a specific ban on consumption--how did that happen?--made enforcing the amendment difficult, the amendment encouraged the rise of organized crime.
Another downside: Despite massive stockpiling of personal stashes of beer, wine, and spirits, eventually those involved in producing and distributing them--farmers, brewers, distillers, truck drivers, warehouse workers and clerks--lost their jobs. The timing couldn't have been worse, as the Great Depression started in 1929, resulting in even more mass unemployment and its attendant social problems (see: 2020's covid-19).
And the federal government was losing tax revenues from the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. That did it. Repeal of the 18th Amendment came on Dec. 5, 1933. Nationwide celebrating followed.
In terms of historical intrigue, the evolution of the Supreme Court's got nothing on this.
The contentious squaring-off of opinions on prohibition are illustrated in the museum with lively graphics, original signage, researched artifacts (many of them donated), editorial cartoons and posters, attention-grabbing newspaper headlines, and propaganda for and against.
Full-size dioramas and displays add dimension to gangsters and their cars, artfully crafted wax figures of moonshiners and their stills, and 1920s-era flappers in their flashy short-skirted dresses (like silent film star Clara Bow). Walls are lined with photos of crusading crowds of women in the streets, and there's a unique and masterfully produced re-enacted video exchange between a portly man-
splaining beer baron and a determined woman focused on knocking down his every argument.
Rollicking period music is all around, competing with broadcasts of barn-burning speeches by anti-
alcohol zealots, and the words of real live docents who are eager to explain and answer questions.
Signage in the museum reminding visitors to use hand sanitizer (it's everywhere) and practice social distancing replicates the style of the period signage on the walls.
The ability to learn so much about our country's contentious past and have fun doing it is worth the price of admission. Now if you can only make it past the fully-stocked speakeasy and make your way through the intriguing gift shop with your wallet intact.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.