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Tampa: A 'Wet' Place in Prohibition Era

Sep 4, 2014

Al Capone and other gangsters of the Roaring Twenties would not have been as notorious if it weren't for them making a buck off of America's drinking problem. The Prohibition era was the first time a Constitutional amendment limited freedoms, even if it was the freedom to drink a cold one.

The new exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center is taking a look back at the 18th Amendment and the role Tampa played as one of the "wettest" areas of the country.

One of the first items in the exhibit is a ledger book from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department from the late 1920's to early '30's, filled with hundreds of arrests.

"We have it open to a page where a lot of bootlegging activity was going on-- people with stills, they're making their own liquor, or bringing in liquor or other violations," curator Rodney Kite-Powell said.

Repeal 18th Amendment License Plate, c. 1930, metal, 5 x 10 1/2 inches, private collection. Image E.G. Schempf
Credit Tampa Bay History Center

A row of newspaper articles with prohibition-era headlines hang behind Kite-Powell. There's one article from October 1921, when the last hurricane hit Tampa Bay. A group of cedar logs washed ashore in Palmetto Beach which were usually used for the cigar box industry. But after breaking them open, it turns out they were used for bringing in liquor.

“They were made for carrying five-gallon jugs of probably rum from Cuba. It’s a neat thing that shows Prohibition was being violated really, at every turn,” Kite-Powell said.

The exhibit, Spirited: Prohibition in America, goes back to the colonial times where it mentions the founding fathers, like James Madison, and the large amounts of alcohol they consumed. Some of that drinking was because it was safer than water.

"The water that was available sometimes wasn’t that good, either it didn’t taste that good or it’d may even be bad for you," Kite-Powell said, "but you knew that a fermented drink like beer or like cider or a distilled drink, like alcohol, would be more safe and also a little maybe pick-me-up in the morning, too.”

But eventually, all that drinking became quite a problem.

“The average working man was drinking far too much. They would go to a bar instead of going home after work, and they’d drink away what they’d earn that day basically, and so that was a real problem," Kite-Powell said, "and a lot of different groups really banded together to push Prohibition through.”

Though it wasn't necessarily appropriate for a woman to find herself in a saloon, even the ladies took a few sips, mostly through patent medicines.

“Medicines like Lydia Pinkham’s ailment medicine. Things like that had a considerable amount of alcohol in them and so these were either being self-diagnosed or prescribed by a doctor for all kinds of 'women’s ailments' and all they really would do is get you drunk,” Kite-Powell said.

Women actually played a key role in the prohibition movement as they founded the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) well before Prohibition became law.

"They really were rallying against drinking again, looking more at the harsh effects that drinking had on the family.”

The Prohibition era also included the explosion of jazz music and the 'scandalous' dance that was the Charleston.

"It’s a very simple dance, but it’s something that at the time was pretty daring and pretty groundbreaking," Kite-Powell said. Among the more than 100 artifacts in the exhibit is a photograph depicting a couple of women dancing the Charleston in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Other items include a pre-Prohibition bar and a smaller replica of a still, without instructions on how to distill your own alcohol.

“Making your own beer - home brew, which people do today and it’s perfectly legal, [but] distilling your own alcohol - which is not legal, making moonshine just like then is illegal now," Kite-Powell said.

He added that Hillsborough County was so spacious, people could distill their own alcohol and nobody would know, "but you’re so close enough to population centers that you could sell it. So Hillsborough County in particular, just like Dade County in Miami, were hot beds not only of incoming alcohol from the Caribbean but also homemade alcohol as well.”

The exhibit runs through October 20th and the History Center is holding a few Prohibition-related events:

I had to ask, are people allowed to bring their own flasks? Kite-Powell said, "as long as you conceal it from the guards."