The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Ty and Zoë I were at the Indiana State Museum touring an exhibition called American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. After receiving a guided tour, we choose to stroll through the exhibition at our own pace, immersing ourselves in video, information, and artifacts. In a room made to resemble a small, country church, we encountered two individuals donning period costumes.

A man, dressed as a preacher and acting the part, took his place behind the pulpit. He set down his dog-eared Bible and singled out Ty.

"You, sir! Have you ever been to a saloon?" 

Ty, who had been examining a collection of Anti-Saloon League propaganda, nodded. "Yes. I have." 

The man brought his fist down upon the pulpit. "And why, sir, why would you go to such a hellish establishment? What do you find there?"

"Fellowship," Ty offered. 

"Fellowship?!" The man boomed, slapping the pulpit and eyeing Ty. “Fellowship? No; no, you do not find fellowship in those establishments. You know where they lead you? To Satan’s lair!” He continued to rant about the dangers of alcohol, white-knuckling the pulpit as he delivered his temperance speech. After he finished, he called for a shout of praise.

“Can I get a ‘Hallelujah?’”

A woman costumed in her Sunday finest, and who sat in one of the exhibition’s mock pews, responded. “Hallelujah!”

“Can I get an ‘Amen?’”

“Amen!” She yelled, raising her right hand to the sky.

The man slid his Bible off the pulpit. “Folks, I hope you enjoy the exhibition and I hope you enjoy the rest of the museum as well. Have a good day.” And with that, he and the woman were gone—gone to “preach” to other visitors. 

Our interaction with them, however, contributed to an enjoyable visit. Unlike Zoë, I had been to the Indiana State Museum only twice before—once for an after-hours Instameet and, later, for a gallery celebrating the art movement in Indianapolis in the 1980s. Though Ty had never seen the floors dedicated to natural history and Hoosier culture, we spent most of our time on the third floor, wandering the Prohibition exhibition.

The exhibition was one of the most interactive exhibits I had ever wandered through. For example, I delivered my own temperance speech—à la Billy Sunday—after a prompt fed me both operative words and suggested actions (point to the crowd, place your left hand over your heart). There were suffragist sashes to try on and rum runners to catch. (The latter was constructed as an arcade-style game, complete with steering wheels for two players. Ty and I played for longer than what might be deemed acceptable for individuals in their mid-20s.) We took mug shots with Al Capone and Lucky Luciano and even admired Carrie Nation’s hatchet.  

“Wait,” Ty said, pointing to a glass case that housed a Thompson M1921. “This is a reproduction of a Tommy Gun. I’m sort of confused. They couldn’t secure an original Tommy Gun, but they do have an ax actually used by Carrie Nation?” He smirked. “I wonder how they swung that one.”

Zoë rolled her eyes. “Oh. My. God,” she said. “You really couldn’t keep away from that pun, could you?”

Ty, clearly pleased with himself, chuckled.

The three of us took collective pleasure in certain artifacts, however, including a bar of dehydrated grapes. We had learned from our tour guide that the instructions on the bar were quite explicit: “Do not add sugar to grapes and set in a dark corner and let ferment for at least two weeks because then you will have wine and wine is illegal.”

Another one of our favorite pieces was a red, white, and blue bandana that encouraged “more beer, less taxes.” We each took a photo of it, and we each took turns pointing out various artifacts to each other. Among us were fellow patrons of the museum, including several families. Both children and adults wandered the exhibition, pausing to admire the flapper dresses—sparkling, glittering—and exploring the replicated speak-easy.  

The three of us spent most of our time in the speak-easy, actually. I spent an absurd amount of time on the dance floor, teaching myself the Charleston. I never perfected the steps, though; my legs were as graceful as those of an erratic grasshopper. The tables in the speak-easy featured lingo from the times, and the bar, at which several stools were placed, broke down the ingredients in several cocktails.

I stepped closer and began reading about “The Cowboy,” which included two parts whiskey and one part cream. “This sounds disgusting,” I said, sticking my tongue out.

Ty laughed and nodded toward the plaque nearest him. “It says that, after Prohibition, ‘drinkers tired of the sweet, creamy concoctions of the previous decade.”

“You don’t say?” I said, pointing to the “The Alexander.” “This one was gin, cream, and chocolate-flavored liqueur.”

Ty’s shudder rivaled those of Sideshow Bob. “I have to admit,” he said, “that this exhibit has made me thirsty. How ‘bout a nice beer?” 


  1. My American how are you?
    Your blog is full of beauty :)

  2. This exhibit was in St. Paul, but I did not go. Your blog post was great!


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