When we purchase beer, wine or liquor, we hardly bat an eye at the ease with which we are able to do so (presuming you are of drinking age). Though the average American might not drink alcohol as much as early Americans—due in large part to issues with water sanitation—getting your hands on a bottle wasn’t always so simple.
Most are familiar with national Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, but not as many are familiar with Virginia’s Prohibition history. That’s why the Library of Virginia opened the exhibit Teetotalers & Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled earlier this month. The exhibit, sponsored by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association and the Virginia Distillers Association, will remain at the library’s 1,200-square-foot gallery through December.
The exhibit takes visitors on a journey through time starting with the rise of the temperance movement in the mid-1800s. It was during the time leading up to the Civil War that negative views of alcohol and its effect on society began to percolate, particularly its effect on family, health and the workplace. Industrialization was on the rise and drinking on the job opened the door to potentially life-threatening consequences.
As the 19th century came to a close, groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League gained momentum, and the state increasingly became divided between wets and dries. Wets were those who opposed statewide prohibition, and dries were those in favor. A Virginia bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, James Cannon Jr., was a major figure in the temperance movement.
Among those opposing Prohibition were local farmers.
“If you’re a farmer producing corn or you have an orchard … You don’t want to throw all of [your crops] away,” Gregg Kimball, the Library of Virginia’s director of public services and outreach and exhibition curator, says. “These farmers always lived on a fairly tight income and were obviously not happy that all of that income was being taken away from them. So a lot of farmers continued producing, making whiskey [and] brandy.”
By 1886, the General Assembly gave Virginia counties the option to ban local businesses’ liquor licenses, and by the time of the 1914 referendum, the only wet counties that voted against Virginia’s prohibition were Alexandria, Norfolk, Williamsburg and Richmond.
The Virginia Prohibition Act was enacted on March 10, 1915, outlawing the sale and consumption of ardent spirits effective November 1916. (Every 30 days, Virginians could purchase 1 quart of distilled liquor, 3 gallons of beer or 1 gallon of wine from another state.)
Halloween of 1916 was the last day that Virginians could purchase alcohol in the state, roughly three years before national Prohibition began, and newspapers had a field day describing those final hours, comparing the last liquor store runs to a football charge or women shoppers flocking to a bargain counter.
In addition to newspapers clippings, photos and artifacts, the Library of Virginia exhibit includes film clips, news reels from the ’20s and ’30s, period music and recordings of the accounts of Prohibition Commission agents. LVA will also host a June 7 event, where two Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents will discuss the state’s liquor regulation through the ages.