New Prohibition Exhibit Opens Today

John Philip Sousa and his pewter “Brig” sailing vessel wine decanter given to him four days before his 70th birthday by the Chicago Civic Music Association on November 2, 1924.

Prohibition — America’s Folly and John Philip Sousa

On November 11, 1918, American troops began returning home from the European trenches of WWI after the Allies and Germany signed the Armistice of Compiègne. Despite the horrors young servicemen experienced overseas they were not allowed to drink alcohol on U.S. soil.  Seven days after signing the Armistice, Congress passed the Temporary Wartime Prohibition Act banning the sale of liquids with an alcohol content greater than 1.28%. The following January Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the sale of alcohol. In October 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which enforced the new Amendment by establishing a legal definition for intoxicating liquors and introducing severe penalties for producing, selling, and purchasing alcohol. This Federal Act also made it illegal to carry even an empty pocket flask on the streets. The 18th Amendment, known as Prohibition, officially took effect in 1920 and was not repealed until 1933, when Congress passed the 21st Amendment.

Throughout the 1920s, moralist groups in the U.S. (often nicknamed “the Drys”) saw the new alcohol laws as a remedy for what had become a blight upon society. Progressive Era temperance societies like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were among the amendment’s most fervent supporters.  However, many more people were extremely outspoken against Prohibition, and were often referred to as “the Wets.” Frequent clashes occurred between the opposing sides, including the sensationalized battles and gunfights between federal law enforcement officers of the Bureau of Prohibition and organized crime bosses like Al Capone. However, the debate over US Alcohol laws extended far beyond the world of organized crime, and could spell financial disaster for businesses, even musical ensembles, who simply acknowledged publicly their social drinking.

In 1926, John Philip Sousa was caught up in this debate. Prior to Prohibition, Sousa had served as Director of the U.S. Marine Band (1880-1892) and the Lieutenant Commander of the Great Lakes Naval Coast Defense Reserve Band (1917-1920).  As a military man, he believed that the 18th Amendment was a blatant dismissal of the needs and desires of the troops returning home. While speaking to the House Patents Committee in a hearing about music copyright, Sousa spoke strongly against Prohibition, and noted that when his civilian band toured they frequently encountered bootleggers that openly made a mockery of the new amendment.  The March King believed drinking in moderation should not be punished by senseless legislation, and most Americans felt the same way. He believed that the new laws disproportionately punished those who treated alcohol with respect in order to punish a small minority of the population who abused it.  After a serious horse-riding accident in which he broke his neck and shoulder in 1921, Sousa often kept a secret stash of medicinal whiskey in his trunk while traveling with his Band. In an opinion column in the October 13, 1922 Boston Herald, Sousa wrote, “The normal man can understand the regulation of the alcoholic evil, but he resents being whipped into submission and [having to] accept the law that is useless as far as he is concerned. Submission is not obedience.”

During the height of the government’s crackdown on alcohol production and consumption, Sousa composed his musical humoresque, “The Mingling of the Wets and the Drys,” which highlighted America’s two opposing views of Prohibition. However, during its planned premiere performance at the Ocean Grove Auditorium in New Jersey on July 10, 1926, numerous moralist groups called for a boycott of the concert if Sousa did not remove the humoresque from the concert program.  This exhibit examines the fallout of the first performances of “The Mingling of the Wets and the Drys” and illustrates the effects of America’s 18th Amendment on John Philip Sousa and his Band during the country’s roaring 1920s.

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