Milford Museum Opens New Prohibition Exhibit

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b1By Terry Rogers

On Wednesday, January 20, the Milford Museum opened a new exhibit entitled “Dry Spell: The Prohibition Experience in Milford. The exhibit chronicles the years prior to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution that banned the sale of alcohol throughout the country. On display are a still, several beer kegs and information from the Temperance Society, who were instrumental in getting the amendment passed in 1919.

“The rise of the temperance movement during the early twentieth century popularized the belief that alcohol was the major cause of most personal and social problems,” said Claudia Leister, Executive Director of the Milford Museum. “It was designed to reduce drinking by eliminating the businesses that manufactured, distributed and sold alcoholic beverages.”

In addition to historic items related to the days of Prohibition in the city, the display also offers visitors a look at how the brewing industry has changed over the years. Eric Williams, owner of Mispillion River Brewing Company provided bottles, kegs and other brewing supplies that are included in the display.

The brewing industry in the United States and the push for Prohibition were closely related. When German immigrants began coming to the United States in the late 1800s, they brought with them lager beer, which grew very popular. Pabst of Milwaukee and Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis were able to harness modern technology, including railroads, to build large distribution chains that helped grow the brewing industry throughout the country. The increase in the popularity of beer also encouraged the growth of saloons, where beer could be easily distributed.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement (WTCU) was organized by women who believed that alcohol was destroying families and society. It was one of the first organizations to keep a professional lobbyist in Washington in order to promote the agenda of the group. The display at the Milford Museum includes certificates of membership in the WTCU and newspaper clippings announcing the ban of alcohol throughout the country.

Delaware actually passed prohibition laws before the federal government added the Eighteenth Amendment, as Kent and Sussex County banned alcohol by referendum as early as 1907. New Castle County soon followed suit, although the City of Wilmington continued to allow alcohol sales until the federal law was passed in 1919.

There is also a photo of one of three Temperance fountains that were installed in Milford during Prohibition that were designed to encourage people to drink safe, free water rather than beer. During the early 1900s, drinking water was not considered safe. Many people turned to beer rather than water as tea and coffee were too expensive. In addition, the term “for medicinal purposes” was established during Prohibition as many doctors prescribed alcohol as cures for ailments.

Up to 200 gallons of wine and cider could be made for personal use as the amendment did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, only the manufacture, importation, sale and transport. Some citizens made alcohol in their homes, which led to terms such as “bathtub gin.”

There are many who believe that Prohibition created a black market that competed with the economy as a significant amount of alcohol was smuggled into the United States from Canada and Mexico. One bootlegger told a newspaper that he had sold alcohol to at least 80 percent of Congress. Some members of Congress said that Prohibition was not stopping crime, but was creating large-scale criminal syndicates.

The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933 when the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified by Utah, the 36th state to do so. It is the only amendment ratified by state ratifying conventions specially selected for the purpose. Delaware ratified the Twenty-First Amendment on June 24, 1933.

The display at the Milford Museum will be available through November 2015 and the museum is planning a Grand Opening event in the next few months. The Milford Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am until 3:30 pm and on Sunday from 1 pm until 3:30 pm. Admission is free and group tours may be scheduled by calling 302-424-1080.