Psst..we're brewing us something special on the second floor of the museum...
Rich with artifacts, this engaging exhibit explores Hampton's long, complicated, and sometimes turbulent, relationship with alcohol leading up to Virginia's Prohibition experiment.
A vast array of items tell the story, including dozens of photographs; numerous bottles, jugs and other containers; games, smoking accoutrements, beverage dispenser, signs and materials of saloon culture; service ware, promotional items and memorabilia from Point Comfort resorts, Phoebus police and fire department items, doctor bag and instruments; and a moonshine still on loan from the Museum of the Albemarle.
On November 1, 1916, Virginia Breweries and distilleries closed their doors as the state began a grand experiment in Prohibition. From that date until 1933, state inspectors and federal agents attempted to stem the flow of illicit alcohol to a thirsty populace. In many ways, Hampton’s relationship with alcohol mirrors Virginia’s as a whole. But, Hampton’s own Prohibition story differs in distinct and unexpected ways.
Curated by Hampton History Museum historian Beth Austin, and museum aide Willow Pell, the exhibit begins at the earliest days of Virginia’s relationship with alcohol. Colonial Americans consumed vast amounts of alcohol during a time when water sources could not be trusted. As a bustling port, the alcohol trade was big business in Hampton, and taverns catering to seafarers.
During the mid and late 19th century, with dry Fort Monroe and adjacent wet Old Point Comfort resorts, The Hygeia Hotel and Hotel Chamberlin, some of the area’s first major tensions surrounding alcohol emerged. These increased with the growth of the saloon culture of nearby Phoebus, where brawls were regular events, and riots between soldiers at Fort Monroe with rival units or locals were not uncommon. Saloons were often set ablaze, and firefighters were sometimes armed to dissuade rioters from attacking the town. Phoebus’ reputation garnered it the nickname of “Little Chicago.”
This atmosphere fueled the temperance movement that sought to change the public’s perception of saloons from a staple of neighborhood life for working class men, to one of licentiousness and ruin. Saloons became a potent symbol of the evils of alcohol, a place that usurped the family and home to the detriment of society. Even before Prohibition, as early at 1908, Phoebus leaders sought to “clean up” the town by driving out brothels and banning music and free lunches in saloons. These steps led to many saloons to close. Pre-Prohibition alcohol restrictions slashed the number of saloons in 1907 to 1916—from 27 to 15 in Phoebus, and from 12 to 5 in Hampton. The restrictions disproportionately impacted African American saloon owners with fines and license revocations.
On September 22, 1914 Virginian voters approved Prohibition. The Virginia General Assembly enacted the Virginia Prohibition Act on March 10, 1915, which went into effect on at the stroke of midnight on November 1, 1916. Distilleries, breweries and saloons across Virginia closed their doors. The impact was felt throughout the economy. This was over three years ahead of national Prohibition which went into effect on January 17. 1920.
Prohibition hit Hampton and Phoebus especially hard. Once thriving resorts struggled to attract out-of-town visitors. Of the handful of saloons that remained open some converted to alternate businesses, such as confectionaries or pool halls. With soda replacing beer as a popular beverage, several local bottlers began operating to meet demand.
One of the few legal ways to buy alcohol was by prescription for “medical use,” providing lucrative additional income for physicians and pharmacists. Farmers who could no longer sell their excess corn, wheat and potatoes to distillers turned to producing moonshine.
Implementing prohibition proved difficult. Resistance from local communities, underfunding, and heavy-handed enforcement, hindered creating a dry Virginia. Booze continued to flow in Phoebus, where many town officials were former saloon owners and enforcement was lax. While exact numbers are unknown, bootleggers were thriving, speakeasies were not unknown, and the police were accused of turning a blind eye. In reaction to public pressure, local officials stepped up enforcement in 1922. Rather than raiding bootleggers and illicit establishments in Phoebus, attention was turned to rural moonshiners, disproportionally affecting black farmers who turned to distilling grain crops into alcohol.
With Virginia’s experiment with Prohibition not going as planned, a special election was held on October 3, 1933, voters ratified the 21st calling for the repeal of Prohibition, and the establishment of the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. The state reverted to pre-1916 taxes on the manufacture and sale of alcohol.
“Teetotalers and Moonshiners, and Hampton’s Prohibition Story” continues through February 4. 2024.
Sponsored by Old Point National Bank and the Hampton History Museum Association.
Image: Lancer's Confectionary, 2 Mellen Street, Phoebus, 1930