Prohibition came and went, wreaking havoc and scoring small victories in other parts of the country, but, unsurprisingly to anyone, New Orleans never stopped drinking. As we’re enjoying a cocktail Renaissance of sorts, it’s appropriate to pause and explore how history has shaped our drinking habits.
“It makes me proud, almost, to know that the debauch has continued uninterrupted since 1718,” says Hannah Griggs, who curated Prohibition Raids in New Orleans, 1919-1933, an interactive exhibit now on display in The Museum of the American Cocktail, which is housed inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum.
Griggs is quick to point out that while the Prohibition era is sometimes hailed as the Golden Age of drinking, it wasn’t.
“People died from poisonous bootlegged liquor, and lives were destroyed and rights infringed upon for doing the things they had always done,” says Griggs.
On July 1, 1919, a year after the 18th Amendment was narrowly passed by a 21-20 vote in the Senate, the sale of alcoholic beverages became prohibited. At the time the National Prohibition Act was carried out, New Orleans was home to some 5,000 bars.
It’s no wonder that a city with such a lively and lucrative drinking culture became a center for bootlegging throughout the Gulf South, flaunting its opposition to the 18th Amendment in both production and consumption. Many establishments defied the ban on alcoholic beverages, and liquor remained widely available.
Referred to by the historian Joy Jackson as “the unlikeliest crusade,” the period of Prohibition also saw a rise in organized crime, bribery of public officials, and an increase in gang activity.
Louisiana Prohibition Director O.D. Jackson played hardball and sent his agents to raid hundreds of establishments – restaurants, breweries, barbershops, cafes, speakeasies, saloons, corner stores, cabarets, pharmacies, you name it – resulting in massive arrests. (Even Commander’s Palace was raided in 1921!). The Times-Picayune diligently published the names and addresses of the violators on an almost daily basis.
The online exhibit, which takes the form of a raid map, visualizes the impact of the Volstead Act (as the National Prohibition Act was often called) on the lives and neighborhoods of New Orleanians between 1919 and 1933. Each dot on the map represents a raid; the color of the dots indicates specific years. You can zoom into different neighborhoods and click on each dot to reveal the raid’s details.
Griggs, an adjunct professor at Boston College and a Ponchatoula native, runs Intemperance.org, a digital project archiving cocktail culture in New Orleans. The site currently houses the online component of this exhibit, which you can explore here.
According to Griggs, the bulk of mapped raids occurred at private residences where citizens were arrested for brewing their own. She says the data is incomplete, even with 507 raids mapped as of June this year. (Griggs plans to keep mapping; you can also follow Intemperance on Twitter to receive updates on the project).
“I love New Orleans, and I honestly believed it was the center of the world until I moved to Boston for graduate school,” says Griggs. “When I started my Master’s degree at Boston College, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about the history of New Orleans or Louisiana. You have to leave, I suppose, to really appreciate what it means to be from the South. I became fascinated – obsessed, really – with the history of Louisiana. It’s riveting and hilarious and beautiful and devastating, all at once.”
Her “epicurean tendencies,” Griggs says, combined with a love for the South, led to creating a map for a digital humanities class project in graduate school that showed “the relationship between drinking/cocktail culture and the rise of the middle class at the end of the 19th century through the 20th.” That became the catalyst for the current Prohibition raids project.
Visiting the Museum of the American Cocktail for the first time last January sealed the deal. Griggs says she “nearly fainted with excitement – on the wall were bottles, advertisements, and publications from companies that I had found in my research, as well as some that I hadn’t heard of before…my research fit in really well with their Prohibition display.”
All of the data on Prohibition raids came from The Times-Picayune’s historic archives and was painstakingly logged by hand. “I built the entire exhibit from scratch,” notes Griggs.
“The T-P would print the names and addresses of people whose homes and businesses were raided by Prohibition agents… [It] would also print these crazy stories of things people would do to hide liquor and avoid arrest, like building trapdoors and elaborate booby traps. People jumped out of buildings and would start shootouts with Prohibition agents,” she adds.
The Museum of the American Cocktail is located inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at 1504 Oretha C. Haley Boulevard. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesday), 11am-5:30pm. Ticket prices: Adults: $10; Students, Military, Seniors: $5; Children under 12: Free.
Image via Intemperance.org.