Exhibition of decorative arts from Prohibition on view in New Orleans

If there’s a “wetter” city than New Orleans, a city that more delights in a cocktail, I don’t know it. Ironic then, and almost spoofing the twisted era when America was “dry,” the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) opens a new decorative arts exhibition on March 1, 2024, looking at Prohibition in the American South. 

Rebellious Spirits: Prohibition and Resistance in the South explores the unique methods in which communities in the United States, particularly in New Orleans, dealt with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned alcohol in the country. 

“Art is a critically important lens to better understand our history,” Susan M. Taylor, The Montine McDaniel Freeman Director of NOMA, said. “This insightful exhibition brings a 13-year period of New Orleans—and American—history to life, and demonstrates how makers responded to their time through art and material culture.”

After more than fifty years of vigorous debate led by a religious temperance movement, the 18th amendment was added to the Constitution in 1919, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

Through objects including cocktail shakers, drinking glasses, liquor containers, and medicine bottles, Rebellious Spirits not only explores the radical changes the Prohibition period instilled within American society’s relationship to alcohol, but also the religious, racial, and economic tensions that stemmed from it. The exhibition looks both at how individuals circumvented Prohibition Era restrictions and how the popular temperance movement advocated for sobriety as a moral and political issue. 

Presented in the museum’s second-floor Elise M. Besthoff Charitable Foundation Gallery, Rebellious Spirits includes over a dozen works drawn from NOMA’s permanent collection further contextualized with historical ephemera, documents, advertisements, and glassware on loan from local institutions, including the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Pharmacy Museum. While the Prohibition era represents only 1920–33, the objects on view in Rebellious Spirits tell a story of drinking culture in the American South starting in the first half of the 18th century.

The exhibition is organized by Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Fellow Laura Ochoa Rincon, who is currently completing a two-year fellowship at the museum.

New Orleans is an American epicenter for drinking culture, and was even before Prohibition. The unique social, political, racial, and economic backgrounds of New Orleanians and people in the American South led to various ingenious methods of skirting the law. Alcohol consumption connected all walks of life during the era of Prohibition,” Ochoa Rincon said. “This exhibition tells those diverse stories through objects that carry the voices of a rebellious society, determined to take freedom into their own hands.”

New Orleans Prohibition Exhibition Highlights: 

  • Prohibition-era cocktail shakers.
  • Bottles from the only brewery in New Orleans to survive prohibition, Jackson Brewing Company.
  • Glasses that demonstrate changes in historical drinking culture, such as an 18th century Dutch-engraved Venetian wine goblet.  
  • Jugtown Liquor vessels which were popular with Louisian moonshiners.
  • Propaganda both for and in defiance of the temperance movement, exploring how Prohibition policy further solidified a rift in society at the time.
  • Historical cocktail recipes.
  • Paper prescriptions used by doctors of the time period to legally order alcohol for patients.
  • Multimedia components including an audio sample of Francis Buck’s “Temperance Waltz”—used to promote abstinence from alcohol consumption—and a stereograph viewer showing an image used to promote low-ABV “near beer.”

Rebellious Spirits: Prohibition and Resistance in the South is on view at NOMA March 1, 2024–January 5, 2025.

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