How Dry We Were

Exploring Prohibition at the Library of Virginia.

No one was much worried about alcohol in the 18th century,” says Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach for the Library of Virginia and curator of an exhibition exploring Prohibition on display now through Dec. 2. 

Although alcohol consumption during Colonial times was widespread, “Nobody had any sense of it as a public health issue or any other kind of issue,” explains Kimball. But during the 19th century, temperance ramped up and took on a political charge: “The classic trope in the literature of temperance was that it was bad for your health and that it led to the destruction of the family.” Thus the visible role of women in the movement. By the time the century turned, proponents were calling for the state to step in.

Teetotalers & Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled looks at the road the Old Dominion took to Nov. 1, 1916—when it declared the state dry—and the aftermath of the decision. The exhibition features posters, sheet music, newspapers, a stylish walking stick that’s actually a flask, recordings of Prohibition songs, and letters with heartfelt pleas from the drink-oppressed to ministers, prohibitors and all kinds of honorables across the Commonwealth.

Prohibition was no cakewalk administratively, as other bits in the show reveal. There’s a letter from a Norfolk rabbi arrested because he didn’t have a permit for the wine he needed for services. There are documents from the Bryan family, of Richmond newspaper fame, who imported booze from their Baltimore home. And newsreels from the National Archives show agents of Virginia’s Prohibition Commission trashing stills.

Prohibition was itself prohibited in 1933. Was it a failure? In many ways, yes, Kimball says, but state control didn’t disappear. It was replaced by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (an exhibit partner). “It’s not like moonshining went away,” Kimball says, pointing to a jar of Franklin County hooch sparkling alongside a still on loan from the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum at Ferrum College in Franklin County—its dome lid sealed with tape marked EVIDENCE—the bounty of ABC agents from a 2005 raid. Admission is free. LVA.Virginia.gov

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