National Archives Exhibit Highlights Nation’s Two Views on Alcohol

Who knew? There’s more to see at the National Archives in Washington than the original Declaration of Independence and the original U.S. Constitution.

A terrific exhibit opening today — weather permitting — features a number of exhibits from the Archives’ collection of federal records pertaining to the alcohol business. It runs through mid-January of next year, and is well worth visiting if you’re in Washington.

Much of the exhibit highlights positive associations with alcohol, starting with a reproduction of a still used at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Sadly, the exhibit doesn’t include George Washington’s 1799 letter to his nephew describing his successful distillery operation. In the letter, he says “demand is brisk” and asks for his nephew’s help in acquiring additional grain for the distillery. That’s because, we were told, it focuses on documents in the National Archives.

In colonial times, and early in the Republic, Americans drank — a lot. With water often a source of disease, by the 1830s Americans were drinking an average of 7.1 gallons of alcohol per person per year. Today Americans drink about 2.3 gallons of absolute alcohol a year.

A “Tower of Jugs” shows the amount of alcohol consumed per-capita then . . . and now.

The first U.S. “temperance” organization was founded in 1808, and the exhibit contains a number of artifacts about the temperance movement, including a petition seeking to end the practice of providing an alcohol ration each day to soldiers and sailors.

There’s also a list of sailors punished on one ship. Most of the offenses were related to alcohol, in some cases simple drunkenness, in others, attempts to get more alcohol than authorized.

The temperance movement gave way to a quest for Prohibition, which found support in two primary groups: rural Protestants (remember in the late 1800s the U.S. was still predominantly rural) and urban businessmen who thought prohibition would lead to more effective workers. Women also played a role.

Support for Prohibition in the Archives’ “Spirited Republic” exhibit is represented through petitions, letters and hospital records.

Concern for a medical cure for alcoholism is represented through a label for Leslie E. Keeley’s “Double Chloride of Gold Cure for Drunkeness,” the most popular cure in the late 19th Century, and a page from a register of patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington.

The original Joint Resolution for the 18th Amendment will be shown in the exhibit for six months.

Once Prohibition became the law of the land, getting around it became a major business. Because of Federal responsibility for enforcing Prohibition, the exhibit contains a large number of Federal records, including a prescription for medicinal whiskey, an ad for beer-making equipment, and a color-coded map of one Prohibition district showing a county-by-county depiction of public sentiment.

A display of original Prohibition Bureau ID cards allows the visitors to understand the careers of such agency as “Izzy” Einstein who with his partner, Moe Smith, arrested more than 5,000 offenders, and of Daisy Simpson, the lady “hootch hunter.”

The nation reversed course with the 21st Amendment. The exhibit includes 39 labels of early post-Prohibition beers and whiskeys.

Where alcohol had been banned for troops during World War I, during World War II it was seen as a release after battle. The exhibit includes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s afternoon cocktail kit. Roosevelt hosted cocktails both during Prohibition and after.

There were only two rules for the “Children’s Hour” — Roosevelt himself made the libations and no business could be discussed, only gossip.

The exhibit includes an early “drunkometer,” a device so unreliable that it was said to enable police to “dial a drunk” which led Indiana University Prof. Robert F. Borkenstein to develop the Breathalyzer, which was the first practical device for roadside BAC testing by police and eliminated the worst aspect of the “drunkometer” — the need to recalibrate every time the device was moved.

It also includes White House correspondence and memorandums relating to alcohol, a number of alcohol-related gifts by foreign leaders to U.S. presidents, a copy of the original edition of the 12-step guide, Alcoholics Anonymous, a letter from country singer Johnny Cash thanking Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, for her example on his journey to recovery, and an ad featuring Betty Ford saying, “I’m living proof you don’t have to die for a drink.”

Admission to “Spirited Republic” is free. The exhibit will remain at the National Archives in Washington until Jan. 10, 2016.

This article originally appeared in Kane’s Beverage News Daily.


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