American Spirits: History

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Release dated: 
August 5, 2013
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American Spirits: History

“American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” at the Minnesota History Center, Nov. 9, 2013 – March 16, 2014

On Jan. 17, 1920, a new day dawned as Prohibition took effect. Americans could no longer manufacture, sell or transport intoxicating beverages. In 1918 Minnesota failed to pass the 18th Amendment, but the next year Minnesota’s legislature ratified it, becoming the 39th state to do so. Thirteen years later, more than 65% of Minnesotans voted for repeal.

What did those who wanted America “dry” hope to achieve? And how did the “wets” fight back? “American Spirits” explores the tumultuous years from 1920 to 1933, and why the country went dry in the first place. Prohibition advocates said that they wanted to improve the nation’s moral and physical health, and in some ways they succeeded. But the nation also endured a radical rise in crime, corruption and cynicism. By the time of the 21st Amendment in 1933, America had become a very different country.

Wayne B. Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League

By 1830, Americans over the age of 15 were drinking alcohol at a rate three times greater than current levels. Equivalent to 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor per person, it remains the highest measured volume of consumption in U.S. history.

After decades of promoting temperance, the anti-liquor forces determined that only a constitutional amendment could make the country dry. The man who made it happen was Wayne B. Wheeler, chief lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League. Wheeler took advantage of an income tax amendment, the campaign for women’s suffrage and a world war to shepherd the 18th Amendment to its ratification on Jan. 16, 1919. A new era was about to arrive in America. In just 112 words, the 18th Amendment made the manufacture, sale and transport of intoxicating liquors illegal. But a law had to be enacted to determine how the amendment would be enforced.

The Volstead Act

Andrew Volstead, a congressman from Granite Falls, Minn., sponsored and lent his name to the law that enforced Prohibition. Passed by Congress in 1919, the Volstead Act stipulated precisely what was illegal and what was not. The Volstead Act provided three key exceptions for the legal manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages – sacramental wine, medicinal alcohol and the preservation of fruit by households through fermentation.

Minnesota Breweries Respond

Across the country the effects of Prohibition were felt overnight and Minnesota was no exception. Local breweries were compelled to manufacture alternatives such as “near beer,” a non-alcoholic version of their original recipes, as well as other soft drinks in order to stay in business. By the time Prohibition ended, more than half of Minnesota’s breweries had shut down.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)

While Minnesota had a large German population that promoted and fostered the growth of breweries throughout the state, there was an almost equally strong temperance movement here. The WCTU of Minnesota began in September of 1877 and was supported by women like Julia B. Nelson, who educated women across the country on the importance of suffrage in the fight for temperance. In the mid-19th century, the Hutchinson Family Singers took up residence in Minnesota and promoted, among other social issues, temperance. They were one of the earliest bands to promote and sing about social issues.

The Jazz Age and F. Scott Fitzgerald

With Prohibition came a new era; the Jazz Age. Exemplified by “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald coined this term that defined the progressive (and often exuberant) lifestyle of 1920s youth. Men and women mingling in a smoke-filled bar, martini glasses held artfully in hand: the generation that had come of age during the grim carnage of World War I now broke free from the past. When the laws changed, so did American habits.

Minnesota in the 1920s

In Minnesota, men and women alike gathered in nightclubs like St. Paul’s The Boulevards of Paris and Coliseum Pavilion. Though no longer standing, these clubs were the very essence of Prohibition-era entertainment. One had only to order a ginger ale and a blind eye would be turned to the personal flasks being drawn from the pockets of many patrons. On most nights local big bands would provide the entertainment; however musicians like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller were known to pass through St. Paul.

“The Boulevards was a sightseeing place, the fanciest place this side of New York. If you hadn't made it to The Boulevards of Paris, you hadn’t seen St. Paul.” Marguerite Junterman, 1993.

F. Scott’s St. Paul

Nightclubs were not the only locations to host raucous parties and well-known figures. The Commodore Hotel in St. Paul was host to Minnesota’s hardest partying couple, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. When no other establishment would take them in, the Commodore doors were wide open. Fueled by alcohol and aspirations of upper-class life, the Fitzgerald’s gave a whole new meaning to the word “debauchery,” often staying up all night on the Commodore rooftop. While this hotel was best known for hosting the Fitzgeralds, it was also a draw for nationally renowned members of organized crime. Both Al Capone and Ma Barker were known to stay there.

Organized Crime

Organized crime wasn’t a new phenomenon in the 1920s. In most cities, gangs had long controlled such illegal enterprises as gambling, prostitution and narcotics. But these were strictly local businesses, often consolidated in a part of town known for its illegal ways.

Networks to transport illegal alcohol quickly spread across the country, over the borders, and along the coasts from Canada and the Caribbean into the United States The transportation of these large quantities of goods meant that mobsters in one city suddenly needed partners in other places. At the same time, competing gangs fought for control of those same markets. Mob wars were rich material for the newspapers, which splashed pictures of slain mobsters across their front pages. This increase in violent crime contributed to the growing public opposition to Prohibition.

The effort to coordinate bootlegging activities across regions produced one of Prohibition’s enduring legacies – the national crime syndicate. Criminals from Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark and New York City first met in Atlantic City in 1929 to divide up territories, fix prices and make cross-territorial distribution deals.

When things got heated, many well-known bootleggers hid out in St. Paul, on invitation of the chief of police, John O’Connor.

The Beginning of the End of Prohibition

Ultimately, a number of issues plagued Prohibition nationally. The rise of organized crime certainly played a role, as did the effects of the Great Depression. As unemployment rose, federal income tax revenues plummeted. Taxes on capital gains evaporated altogether. In 1930, Congress became desperate for revenue and saw hope in a tax – this time, the return of a federal tax on alcohol. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt came out for repeal during the 1932 campaign, it was clear that the 18th Amendment was doomed.

Prohibition’s Legacy

In almost every respect, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, created a culture of official corruption, and imposed profound limits on individual rights.

But in one critical respect Prohibition was a success: Americans drank less. Even after repeal, Americans’ per capita alcohol consumption did not return to pre-Prohibition levels until 1973. The repeal of Prohibition actually made it harder, not easier, to get alcohol. Section 2 of the 21st Amendment returned the regulation of alcohol to the states, and states responded with new laws intended to prevent the lawlessness of Prohibition and the excesses of what came before.

Everywhere there were new restrictions on buying, selling and consuming alcohol: closing times, age limits, Sunday blue laws and the end of brewery-owned saloons.

To this day, the effects of Prohibition can still be seen in Minnesota. Even with the rise of micro-breweries across the state, the number of pre-Prohibition breweries still goes unmatched.

Minnesota Historical Society Resources

For more information on Minnesota’s role in Prohibition and to see related images in the Society’s collection, visit our Collections Up Close podcast titled The Road to Prohibition, at

In addition, a number of titles from Minnesota Historical Society Press relate to the 1920s and Prohibition including Soda Shop Salvation: Recipes and Stories from the Sweeter Side of Prohibition by Rae Katherine Eighmey; Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang by Timothy Mahoney and John Dillinger Slept Hereby Paul Maccabee. Find out more at Add quotes around book titles.