Flappers, jazz, and colorful cocktails to mask the harsh taste of bathtub gin are familiar cultural influences from the Prohibition era. The Mob Museum’s new online exhibition, Prohibition: An Interactive History, delves deeper into the impact of this dry period on the United States between the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, to its repeal with the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.
The museum is based in Las Vegas, a city where Prohibition was not thoroughly enforced. The collection of this National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement can verge on the macabre; its prized artifact is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall. That act of violence in 1929, when seven men were gunned down as part of a gang war, was among the most visible and grisly moments of the organized crime supported by bootlegging profits. The Mob Museum explored it in its first online exhibition, which, like Prohibition, involves extensive text, photographs, videos, and other archival material to create a digital timeline.
It’s hard to say how successful such online initiatives are in engaging a wide audience, especially when they’re so text heavy, and the interactive elements, like the “Get the Booze to the Stash House” driving game, are a bit clunky. However, Prohibition is worth exploring as it reveals that a complex political and social climate, not dissimilar from the one we’re in now, played a major role in the passage of prohibition. For instance, anti-immigrant sentiments against the drinking traditions of Ireland, Germany, and Italy were partly responsible for sparking the temperance movement, and the Ku Klux Klan was active in rallying to approve Prohibition.
Once instituted, Prohibition augmented American culture, the legacy of which punctuates the online exhibition. The rising hemlines and bobbed hair of women’s fashion were radical, something which the Mob Museum is exhibiting on-site in the Ready to Roar: Women’s Eveningwear in the Prohibition Era project, curated by University of Nevada, Las Vegas students. The flappers appeared in films of the 1920s and ’30s, which also often romanticized the gangster lifestyle and shaped enduring characters like Betty Boop. The rise of jazz music offered new opportunities to African-American musicians, although they were frequently performing for completely white audiences. And, in one of the era’s more curious spin-offs, stock car racing started with the souped up cars used for bootlegging, eventually leading to the endless circling of NASCAR.
Today you can purchase booze without fear of jake leg or arrest, yet Prohibition still haunts the laws of many states. The Mob Museum includes a map to click state-by-state for these remnants. So if you end up in Kansas on Christmas this year and can’t buy a bottle of whiskey, you’ll know you have Prohibition to thank.
Prohibition: An Interactive History from the Mob Museum is available to explore online.