History Alive: The 1920s

When I think about the 1920s, my mind automatically transports me to scenes from Midnight in Paris. I picture the Fitzgerald sipping cocktails with Hemmingway, a Peugeot Type 176 driving by, and all passerbys clothed in flapper-style dresses or simple suits and fedoras. Of course, aside from the jazz, style, and nightlife, there was a fair amount of drama going on in the U.S., often not portrayed in these glamorous 1920s-era films.

On January 7, 1920, the 18th Amendment was added to the constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, selling and transport of alcohol. And while this affected the entire country,

Photo courtesy of the library of congress

Minnesota has it’s own story. The Volstead Act, which designated how the amendment was enforced, was named after Andrew Volstead, a U.S. representative from Granite Falls, Minn. The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived and partied in St. Paul, inspiring the term Jazz Age to be used to describe the youth of that time. Formerly standing St. Paul clubs like The Boulevards of Paris and Coliseum Pavilion became a gathering spot for those sneaking drinks, while the city also became a hideout for a number of famous criminals, including Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger.

The Minnesota History Center is offering a rare look at this constitutional hiccup in their latest exhibit, American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which opens Friday. This is the first comprehensive exhibit of its kind, in which you can experience what life was like in the era of bootleggers, flappers, suffragists, and temperance workers.

This movement, of course, started because of America’s drinking problem; consumption in the mid-1800s was three times greater than it is today. Learn about those who were against the habit by sitting in a recreated early 1900s church and hearing about the rise of the Anti-Saloon League, and take a quiz to find out if you would have been a “wet” or a “dry.” You can also view related artifacts, including Anheuser-Busch branded glasses and art, a hatchet used by Carry Nation in a barroom-smashing raid and bootlegger stills and flasks made to look like everyday items. No matter whether you’re deemed a “wet” or a “dry,” both will enjoy learning to dance the Charleston in a recreated speakeasy, or pretending to be a federal Prohibition agent pursuing rumrunners in a custom-designed video game. As a keepsake, get your mug shot taken with mobsters and gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky.

Due in part to the rise of organized crime and the effects of the Great Depression, Prohibition was revoked in 1933. Sit in a 1930s-style theater and see how Americans celebrated the repeal and return of legal beer, view Minnesota’s original copy of the 21st Amendment, and see a map that identifies Prohibition’s lasting effects.

If the era fascinates you like it does me, you should also consider attending our Fine Spirits Classic event, which will take place on repeal day—December 5. Sample high end spirits that any of the “wets” would’ve downed, enjoy bites, and be entertained by local bartenders and music. You can purchase tickets here