[Courtesy of New Orleans
Museum of Art/Gift of Melba and Moise S.Steeg, Jr.]

Rebellious Spirits Exhibit at NOMA Showcases Prohibition, New Orleans’ Style

07:00 April 22, 2024
By: Amy Kirk Duvoisin

New Orleans During Prohibition Showcased

On March 1, the New Orleans Museum of Art opened a new decorative arts exhibition, Rebellious Spirits: Prohibition and Resistance in the South, showcasing the unique responses and approaches taken by Americans, particularly New Orleanians, after the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned alcohol in the country from 1920-1933.

"Art is a critically important lens to better understand our history," NOMA's Montine McDaniel Freeman Director Susan M. Taylor 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."

"Bubble" Cocktail Shaker and Cups, c. 1930 [New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift from the George R. Kravis II Collection]

The words "Prohibition" and "New Orleans" are naturally opposed, which is what makes this exhibit so intriguing and at times cheeky, offering yet more evidence that the City That Care Forgot often responds to rules and regulations with revelry. For example, the display of an archival letter issued by the U.S. government to the residents at 516 Bourbon St. as an official warning to cease boozing it up, was, according to the exhibit description, met with total disregard by its recipients—as were the six other letters mailed to the same address over the course of several years during Prohibition, threatening property removal and incarceration if they continued partying. Their les le bon temps rouler attitude resulted in nothing from the feds.

It is these types of documents, some on loan from the Historic New Orleans Collection and the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, that add illuminating narratives to the decorative art pieces. Together, they tell a story of New Orleans that most of us have not seen or heard, such as the display of a temperance medal that citizens wore to alert others that they were serious about their non-imbibing. Images of Storyville are accompanied by an explanation of how temperance proponents turned a blind eye, considering it a confined area where vices were allowed to exist, while others saw it as the obvious arch-enemy of temperance, calling for its removal as part and parcel of Prohibition.

"Temperance, Success, and Prosperity" Pledge Card [The Historic New Orleans Collection]

The exhibition is organized by Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Fellow Laura Ochoa Rincon, who is currently completing a two-year fellowship at the museum. Ochoa Rincon's research interests center around the intersection of foodways, race, class, and immigration—and the relationship between material culture and life in the Americas. Ochoa Rincon holds a master's degree from the University of Delaware's renowned Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and a BA from New York University. The exhibit was partly inspired by a PBS documentary she saw about the temperance movement that noted how easy it was to find alcohol in the Big Easy at that time.

"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."

"Band of Hope" Temperance Ribbon, 1884-1887 [The Historic New Orleans Collection]

Connections from this exhibit's examples of creative adaptability can be made to today's world. The growing mocktails movement—born not from law but from a growing health-conscious and sobering culture—is echoed in the Prohibition era's "near beer" and other clever drinks invented to offer substitute social lubricants. The prescriptions for "medicinal whiskey" (with instructions to take one spoonful per hour) are reminiscent of modern-day medicinal marijuana prescriptions.

Many objects selected for this exhibit from NOMA's Decorative Arts Collection are on public display for the first time, selected by Ochoa Rincon for their artistry as much as for their ability to illustrate how drinking culture evolved and adapted to the socio-political landscape, from the size and shape of glasses to the creation of cocktail shakers with built-in recipes designed to "make homemade bathtub gin taste better."

The exhibit is on display within the Decorative Arts gallery at NOMA through January 2025.

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