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American Spirits: A Wet 'n Wild Prohibition-Fest

Learn to speak '20s slang or dance the Charleston at a fun new exhibition—and see if you'd be a "wet" or a "dry."

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Don't mess with Carry A. Nation. Photo via

By Sarah Beller

11/12/12

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During Prohibition, a woman named Carry A. Nation (really) earned fame for marching into saloons with a hatchet and smashing everything in sight. She's one small piece of the story chronicled by “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition"—an exhibition at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. It runs there through April and will then travel to Seattle; St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis; Austin, Texas; and Grand Rapids, Mich. Its way of documenting 1920-1933 seems anything but dry. Visitors can learn 1920s slang in recreated speakeasyies where flappers once illegally slurped “foot juice” (cheap wine) and “jag juice” (hard liquor). Interactive video screens quiz you on your background, then inform you whether you'd likely have been a “wet” or a “dry.” In one room, you can even learn to dance the Charleston. The show charts how the temperance movement was prompted by a real national drinking problem: in 1830, Americans over age 15 drank about seven gallons of pure alcohol a year—the equivalent of four shots a day, or triple the current level. But Prohibition sure didn’t stop people from getting “zozzled;” legal ambiguities and loopholes were widely exploited. Sales of malt for home fermentation exploded; physicians prescribed alcohol to patients for various maladies; flasks were hidden inside walking sticks and cigar boxes, and criminals like Al Capone took over distribution and smuggling. The exhibition's curator Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call, the book that informed Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 2011 documentary, Prohibition, says the era left an "indelible mark" on America. The show's final sections cover the 1933 repeal of Prohibition and its legacy, which includes the still-surviving (barely) Prohibition Party. The spirit of '33 may be re-emerging today, with the beginning of the end of another kind of prohibition—in two states at least.

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