Ever since the first European settlers came to America, they have enjoyed a good alcoholic drink. But despite its place in American culture, alcohol has often been contentious. While some enjoy it, others feared the harm alcohol would do society.
For the National Archives, America’s relationship with alcohol is the focus of a new exhibit called “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History.”
“I recently told somebody that creating an exhibit is a lot like drinking: You don’t want to do it alone,” said Bruce Bustard, senior curator of the National Archives and curator of “Spirited Republic.” For him the exhibit represents more than a solitary effort, it’s the result of a collaborative effort by the National Archives and the National Archives Foundation to show people how alcohol has played a part in U.S. history.
Some of the Founding Fathers had connections to alcohol. Samuel Adams worked for his father’s malt house. Thomas Jefferson made money from importing alcoholic beverages from Europe. Following the Revolutionary War George Washington ran a distillery near his home at Mount Vernon, producing as many as 11,000 gallons of brandy and whiskey in 1799, the year of his death.
The exhibit features information on Daisy Simpson, one of the few women who worked as a federal agent during Prohibition. Her nickname was “the lady hooch hunter,” and she was famous for her ability to work undercover to unearth the illegal production and sales of alcohol in San Francisco.
Another agent, Isidor “Izzy” Einstein, along with his partner Moe Smith, was one of the most famous prohibition agents of the 1920s. Despite having no previous law enforcement background before becoming an agent, he and his partner are credited with almost 5,000 arrests and a 95 percent conviction rate. The duo was famous for using disguises in their investigations as well as timing their arrests to coincide with slow news days so as to increase press coverage.
Mr. Bustard said, “Federal policies around alcohol and drinking reflected, and were shaped by, the tremendous political controversy that broke out in the mid-19th century and lasted into the early 20th century around prohibition and temperance. Sometimes these two traditions coexist peacefully, and other times they’re pretty much at war with one another.”
A recreation of one of the stills that operated at Washington’s Mt. Vernon distillery, the original credentials of Simpson and Einstein and the cocktail set that Franklin Delano Roosevelt used for his evening cocktail parties for his staff are just some of the artifacts displayed at the archive’s exhibit.
The exhibit also showcases the original resolution that proposed the banning of alcohol in the 18th Amendment, along with the text of the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition in 1933.
“‘Spirited Republic’ uses our holdings to examine the production, consumption and regulation of alcohol through U.S. history,” said Debra Wall, deputy archivist of the United States, at a preview for the exhibit. “Visitors will find lighthearted moments, surprising revelations and a serious look at the consequences of consumption. The featured items illustrate the wide variety of views Americans hold about alcohol, and show how government program[s] and policies have changed over time.”
The exhibition is split into four sections, with each area dedicated to the changing attitudes toward alcohol: positive attitudes and widespread consumption, the temperance reform and the shift toward prohibition, the enforcement of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and, finally, the end of Prohibition and return of the alcohol industry to the American landscape.
“Spirited Republic” will be at the Archives through January 10, 2016.