Legacy of Prohibition

Both record-breaking heat and more flooding occurred in New Orleans during my brief trip north, so I am grateful that the few days after my return have brought nothing but garden-variety temperatures and a mild afternoon thunderstorm.

I had a thought-provoking time in Pittsburgh.  I don’t know that city well at all, but my few visits over the last decade have impressed me.  It seems like a city in the midst of reinventing itself, something I can get behind.

We visited the Heinz History Center, and its Smithsonian-quality exhibit on Prohibition, American Spirits, was a real pleasure.  A few years ago, I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the same topic, and it really piqued my curiosity.  It’s a fascinating chapter of American history, and one I had known nothing about.

These days, I think about drinking a lot since it’s such a part of the culture down here.  But I was raised in a family of teetotalers, going back two generations.  This exhibit reminded me that my mother’s attitudes, absorbed from her Methodist parents who were both born in 1917, are precisely the moral arguments that led to the 18th Amendment in the first place.

In fact, I can picture the very country bar that still stands about ten miles up the road from where she was raised, probably the grandchild of the original House of Sin her parents knew about.

“There are men who go in there and drink away their whole paycheck.  Their wives and children suffer.”

So I heard from Mom.  I’m sure there was actually some truth to this, because in small towns, everyone knows everyone’s business.  My great-aunt Myrtle taught in the very same one-room country schoolhouse where these children got their grade school education.

Not surprisingly, New Orleans’ history during Prohibition is pretty colorful.  One great story, naturally, involves a 1921 parade.  Headed by New Orleans’ former Mayor Martin Behrman, who was noted for saying “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular,” it was just another example of New Orleanians parading for a cause, in this case, amending the Volstead act to permit the sale of beer and light wines.

Another story tells of the famous undercover enforcement agent, Izzy Einstein.  While visiting various cities, he conducted a personal poll to see where he could obtain a drink the fastest.  Does it surprise anyone that within 35 seconds of stepping down from his train, a cab driver offered to sell him a pint?  Needless to say, New Orleans won.

I guess in this city of drive through daiquiris (just don’t put the straw in ’til you’re parked), some things haven’t changed much!



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