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History Center's 'Spirited' Prohibition exhibit examines Tampa's speakeasy era


Published:   |   Updated: September 1, 2014 at 08:39 AM

During the 1920s, when public consumption of alcoholic was outlawed and the legal sale of booze dried up, Tampa became one of the “wettest” places in the nation.

In the decade that followed the 1919 Prohibition Act, the city was a haven for smugglers, bootleggers, moonshiners and organized crime. Before the law was repealed in 1933, Tampa had more than 120 outlets selling illegal booze. And scores of so-called “black ships” operated off the coast of Tampa Bay bringing in unlawful liquor.

This era of the “speakeasy” and the failed “Noble Experiment” is recalled in a new exhibit at the Tampa History Center.

“Spirited: Prohibition in America,” opening Monday, explores the history of the not-so-secret clubs (called speakeasies because patrons were not supposed to talk publicly about them) and the failed “experiment” that was supposed to address a national drinking problem.

A national traveling exhibit is combined with some local artifacts and photos. These will be on display through Oct. 20.

“Spirited” runs only seven weeks, but there are a lot of special events planned, including a “Roaring 20s” happy hour from 5:30 to 8:30 on Sept. 5, featuring Prohibition era cocktails. Admission is free for members and $15 for non-members (reservations required at www.tampabayhistorycenter.org).

“We have a remarkable number of related events for this one,” says history center curator Rodney Kite-Powell who will be leading a special tour, “Sangria & Stories: Prohibition in Tampa and America,” at 7 p.m. on Sept. 10 (tickets are $12 and $17).

“Tampa has a rich history connected with Prohibition because the city became a point of entry for smugglers,” says Kite-Powell. “We have gathered a few things that represent local history from the 1920s, such as a replica of a moonshine still, headlines from The Tampa Tribune, a liquor bottle from the 1920s, an arrest ledger from the sheriff's office and some fascinating vintage photographs.”

The traveling exhibit, based on the national exhibit “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” includes more than 100 artifacts, including music, clothing, a moonshine still, vintage moonshine jugs, bootlegger's maps, mug shots and political propaganda from the era.

“It traces the origins of the law which was passed to address a national drinking problem at the time,” says Kite-Powell. “Workers, mostly men, were such heavy drinkers that it was amazing anything got done.”

But there were other anti-drinking forces involved that made for a collection of strange bedfellows, including feminists pushing for the right to vote, churches that supported the temperance movement and bigoted groups that opposed immigrants, painting ethnic groups such as the Irish, the Germans and Hispanics as heavy drinkers.

The unexpected result of Prohibition was that it opened the door for organized crime to supply the booze. And instead of curbing alcohol consumption, it encouraged people to break the law, Kite-Powell says.

The exhibit also covers the music (jazz), fashion (flappers) and notable figures, such as Al Capone, Carrie Nation and Eliot Ness, from the era.

Among the other events planned:

♦ A free “Florida Conversations” panel discussion with local experts and historians on the music, food and fashion of the era at 6 p.m. on Sept. 17.

♦ A book group discussion of “Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s” by Frederick Lewis Allen at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 18.

♦ A second “Sangria & Stories” event at 6 p.m. Oct. 1, “Prohibition's Cultural Upheaval,” features University of Tampa Assistant Professor of History, Charles McGraw. Admission is $12 and $17.

♦ Another “Florida Conversations” at 6 p.m. on Oct. 15, “Florida and America in the 1920s,” features David Colburn, director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Policy and St. Petersburg history professor Gary Mormino, scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities.

♦ The History Center also offers two short three-part Prohibition history courses ($30 each) on Oct. 1 and Oct. 22. Visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org for details.

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