Prohibition in Pittsburgh: 13 must-see features at Heinz History Center’s new exhibit

See a bar-busting hatchet, snap a photo with gangsters, and brush up on some 1920s lingo

Prohibition agents pour out confiscated liquor in New York City.

Prohibition agents pour out confiscated liquor in New York City.

Library of Congress / Courtesy of Heinz History Center
Rossilynne Culgan

America’s relationship history with alcohol: It’s complicated.

Heinz History Center’s newest exhibit chronicles America’s complex link with booze. The traveling exhibition, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” opens Feb. 10 and will be on view until June 10, bringing the roaring ’20s to life through rare artifacts and immersive displays.

It also seeks to answer what’s nowadays a perplexing question: “How the heck did America end up with Prohibition in the first place?” senior curator Leslie Przybylek said.

It’s a riveting and often unbelievable dive into American history, and it’s definitely worth your time to check out. The exhibit starts in the glory days of booze and moves chronologically into the temperance movement, then into prohibition and its eventual repeal. Budget a few hours, because each segment of this 9,000-square foot exhibit is filled with fascinating history.

Here’s what you must see:

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

1. Gawk at how much Americans used to drink

In 1830, the average American guzzled 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor a year. That’s the equivalent of seven gallons of pure alcohol — or about four shots a day. No, Americans weren’t just getting lit for the fun of it. Water wasn’t safe and culturally, people were used to drinking beer and hard cider, Przybylek said. This consumption, the highest measured volume in U.S. history, is three times greater than current levels in America. The illuminated bottles in this photo represent current yearly consumption.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

2. Consider the temperance movement in a new light

It’s too narrow a view to consider temperance crusaders as buttoned-up women hellbent on spoiling everybody’s fun. In the 1800s, women had few legal rights and could not vote to change the laws — “including those that might protect them from drunken husbands,” a plaque at the exhibit reads.

Suffrage and temperance went hand in hand. Suffrage pioneer Susan B. Anthony got her start as a temperance activist in the 1840s. You can even snap a photo with a temperance banner.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

In Pittsburgh, the temperance movement began in 1829 when more than 1,000 people signed a petition to request a decrease in the number of tavern licenses granted here. The looming debate over slavery and the Civil War, however, shelved attention to this issue in the 1860s.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

3. See Carry Nation’s bar-busting hatchet

Famous saloon buster Carry A. Nation (literally, her real name) showed up in a Kansas saloon with a hatchet. She smashed the bottles, destroyed a mirror behind the bar, hurled the cash register to the floor and broke open the bar’s beer barrels. She called her raids “hatchetations” and sold tiny hatchet pins as souvenirs. You can see her hatchet, circa 1901, and a piece of the bar mirror she shattered.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

4. Quiz yourself to see if you’d have been a wet or a dry

In this interactive kiosk, answer a few questions to see if you’d have been ” a wet or a dry” — a decision rooted in much more than opinions on alcohol.

The results might just surprise you.

Knock here.

Knock here.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

5. Knock on a speakeasy door

Knock on the intimidating door and get a sense of what it would have been like to try and get into a speakeasy. This door leads to the second part of the exhibit after after Prohibition passed and the roaring ’20s began in earnest. Men and women mingled in smoke-filled speakeasies, a time of dancing and liberating freedom — “nobody stays home anymore,” as novelist Willa Cather said.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

6. Pick up some 1920s lingo

Inside the speakeasy, it’s important to act like you belong. Learn the rules and some lingo: If there’s a raid, sit tight, jazz baby and jelly bean. Don’t get zozzled.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

While you’re there, admire ornate 1920s fashions and a gleaming car that looks as if it were plucked straight out of The Great Gatsby.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

7. Learn some new cocktail recipes

During Prohibition, bartenders had to get creative with limited resources, often relying on mixers like ginger ale or cream to mask poor-quality liquor. Check out some Prohibition cocktail recipes to try at your next party.

World Champion Charleston dancer Bee Jackson.

World Champion Charleston dancer Bee Jackson.

Courtesy of Heinz History Center

8. Dance the Charleston

Try out the steps of this popular Prohibition-era dance and watch the experts spin around the dancefloor.

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9. Admire ingenious flasks

People really got creative during the Probhition, hiding their booze in all kinds of places — like a cane, a camera, a cigar case and even a book of poetry aptly titled “Spring Poems: The Four Swallows.”

New profile pic.

New profile pic.

Courtesy of Heinz History Center

10. Snap a picture with some notorious gangsters

Pose for a mugshot beside a lineup of some of the era’s most storied gangsters like Al Capone and Meyer Lansky. Remember not to smile, you’ve got to look tough next to these guys.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

11. Look for local connections

Throughout the exhibit, keep an eye out for local connections. Find a quote from temperance leader Billy Sunday, a former Pittsburgh Allegheny baseball player, who called the saloon “the sum of all villainies.” Spot artifacts from Pittsburgh Brewing Co. and details about rum-running on Lake Erie. At the end of the exhibit, look for information about Pennsylvania Gov. Giffort Pinchot, a staunch advocate of Prohibition who responded to the law’s repeal by creating one of “strictest statewide alcohol control systems in the nation, a legacy Pennsylvania still lives with today.” What’s more, women weren’t allowed to be bartenders in Pennsylvania until just 50 years ago.

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Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

12. Bring something home from the gift shop

The museum’s gift shop is well stocked with themed books, coaster sets, shot glasses reading “Closed for violation of national Prohibition act,” and pins stating “We want beer.”

13. Explore more with an event

Visit on opening day, Feb. 10, for a behind-the-scenes tour with Przybylek or mark your calendar for an upcoming speakeasy social. Or attend History Uncorked, the museum’s annual fundraiser.

Party like it’s 1920

Travel back to the roaring '20s at History Uncorked. Snap speakeasy selfies in a themed photobooth, enjoy live jazz music, dance to DJ Mad Maxx, enjoy food and beverage samples and explore the new American Spirits exhibition. Be sure to dress the part in 1920s-inspired attire.

Where: Heinz History Center at 1212 Smallman St. (Strip District)

When: February 16, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.

How much: $65