St. Louis on the Air
5:06 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

Prohibition Era St. Louis, From Dance To Drink

From 1920 until 1933, it was illegal to manufacture, transport and sell alcohol in the United States. In response, an underground culture of speakeasies and bootleggers sprang up, where covert groups met in unmarked locations to drink homemade gin, listened to jazz and danced the Charleston.

In St. Louis, those looking for a drink met in cellars and caves, said Tracy Lauer, an archivist at Anheuser-Busch.  Saloons and taverns shut down across the city, many to never reopen.

Anheuser-Busch beer case, circa 1933.
Anheuser-Busch beer case, circa 1933.
Credit Courtesy Annheuser-Busch Archives

Anticipating the possibility of Prohibition, Adolphus Busch came out with the non-alcoholic beer Bevo in 1906.

“For ten years, they played with it. They tried to make sure they got the formula right; they wanted to make sure it tasted right,” said Lauer. “And then when national prohibition took effect, we had this great product that we thought was going to get us through Prohibition. And it turns out that was not the case.”

In order to stay in business, Anheuser-Busch sold some of its property, presidents went without pay, and the company branched out into the production of such things as refrigerated trucks and paddy wagons.

“American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” opened at the Missouri History Museum in April. According to Missouri History Museum curator Sharon Smith, the exhibit, which is traveling the country, tells the national story of Prohibition. But St. Louis is strongly represented with 20 artifacts contributed by Anheuser-Busch and another twelve from the Missouri History Museum.

“As you walk into the exhibit the very first thing you’re greeted with is a huge wall that’s filled with large bottles. There are 90 of them on the wall, and it suggests to us that in 1830 America had a drinking problem,” said Smith, who explained that the bottles represent the fact that in the 19th century people as young as 15 were drinking 90 bottles of 80 proof liquor a year.”

Speakeasy table display in the "American Spirits" exhibit.
Speakeasy table display in the "American Spirits" exhibit.
Credit Courtesy Missouri History Museum

As its title implies, the exhibit includes artifacts from the lead-up to the repeal of Prohibition.  There’s a section on the Temperance Movement, with a display of the hatchet famous temperance activist Carry Nation used to tear down saloons.  Other sections of the exhibit include a replica of a speakeasy with tables, a powder room, and a dance floor. And there’s a video game where you take on the role of a federal agent tasked with tracking down a bootlegger.

During Prohibition, dance styles influenced by jazz music became all the rage. Exhibit visitors can follow the footsteps on the speakeasy dance floor to learn the dance. Or they can sign up for a class with Lindy Hop St. Louis, a local group dedicated to preserving dances such as swing and the Charleston.

Lindy Hop co-founders Christian Frommelt and Jenny Shirar spoke with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh about the dance forms in advance of the show.

Fun fact: the Lindy Hop was named after Charles Lindbergh, in commemoration of his "hop" across the Atlantic.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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