Hidden History: Behind the Valentine Museum’s Madeira Bottle
VPM’sHidden History with Brian Bullock takes a look into the not too distant past and learns about how the prohibition era affected people in Virginia.
On March 10th, 1915, the Virginia General Assembly enacted the Virginia Prohibition Act which went into effect on Nov. 1st, 1916. This act outlawed the production, distribution and sale of alcohol across the state. As a result of this, a complicated relationship formed between Virginia and alcohol.
Before the prohibition act, there was the Temperance Movement. The Temperance Movement began in the 1800s and focused its efforts on limiting alcohol consumption. To learn more about this history of the movement, we visited the Valentine Museum in Richmond. They are dedicated to collecting, preserving and interpreting Virginia’s history, including the history of prohibition and how it affected Virginians.
“Virginians have always been big drinkers dating all the way back to colonial times. Taverns, saloons and drinking clubs were all important sites of social and political interaction. But we also have a really long history of alcohol production here in state as well,” said Rachel Asbury Cole who is part of the collections department at the Valentine. “[We produced] everything from wine, beer, cider, both legal and illegal liquor as well. Alcohol is big business. Richmond in particular has always been a big beer producer.”
The museum showcases this history through various displays of historic and contemporary bottles from breweries in the Richmond area, as a stark reminder of the role in history alcohol has played throughout the years, including during prohibition.
Cole elaborated on the reasons why prohibition made such an impact in the U.S. and Virginia. “In the mid to late 19th century, you really start to see a lot more legal regulations being placed on both alcohol production and consumption. Virginia starts to tax liquor sales in 1877, and there are a lot of licensing requirements on who can serve and sell alcohol. At the same time, you’re starting to get this competing belief of the fear of alcohol that’s driven by the Temperance Movement. The Temperance Movement wants to limit alcohol consumption on moral grounds. There’s this overwhelming fear that drunkenness and alcohol is going to cause all of these societal ills. Things like poverty, crime, it’s going to tear the family apart. So, you have organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti Saloon League really starting to lobby against the liquor industry.”
One of the main things the organizations were supporting aside from the legal regulations, was pushing for the General Assembly to pass the local option. The local option allowed counties and cities to independently vote on whether they want to allow alcohol sales and consumption within that jurisdiction.
In Virginia, the Virginia Prohibition Act was passed in 1914 and went into effect in 1916; four years before national prohibition went into effect with the 18th Amendment.
“Virginia really starts to experience the ‘second civil war’, and this is between the ‘wets’ and the ‘dries’. Prohibition absolutely does not stop the flow of alcohol in Virginia. Instead, it just pushes the alcohol industry underground. You start having this overall network of the illegal booze industry with bootleggers, moonshiners and speakeasies. Alcohol is still there, it’s just a little bit harder to get your hands on.”
The Valentine Museum has several artifacts to help tell the story of prohibition in Richmond., including two bottles that represent two businesses that were directly impacted by the Virginia Prohibition Act. The first of these artifacts is a whiskey jug retailed by Phil Kelly, a whiskey and liquor wholesaler. The Virginia Prohibition Act put Kellyout of business for good. This unfortunate fate was narrowly avoided by the previous owner of the other artifact, a full bottle of Rainwater Madeira.
The bottle was retailed by RL Christian and Company, a grocer that sold imported fine table goods, wines and liquors. Although prohibition put Kelly out of business permanently, RL Christian was able to keep his business open for another decade after removing liquor from his inventory.
With the new inability for saloons, taverns and other drinking establishments to operate legally, the business they conducted was moved underground. These establishments were commonly called speakeasies because you had to “speak easily,” once inside. To learn more, Brian visited a modern-day speakeasy in Richmond called Grandstaff and Stein to find out about this big part of prohibition history.
“[Speakeasies] started off overseas,” Mark Belvin, the manager and bartender of Grandstaff and Stein said.
“They eventually made their way to Australia and then America in the 1800s. It was basically a saloon that was unlicensed. Generally, there was a password [to get in] we keep on theme with that here. The police knew about these places, and they would also hang out there too. If you were a smuggler or you had some dirty business, as long as you knew the right police officers, they hung out with you and they turned a blind eye to it as well.”
Implementing prohibition in Virginia proved difficult due to resistance from local communities. Underfunding and heavy-handed enforcement hindered creating a dry Virginia. Bootleggers and speakeasies were thriving, and the police were accused of turning a blind eye.
In reaction to the public pressure on the issue, local officials stepped up enforcement in 1922. Rather than raiding the bootleggers and illicit establishments, the attention was turned to the rural moonshiners which disproportionately affected the Black farmers who turned to distilling grain crops into alcohol.
In the wake of the prohibition era, which was repealed nationally in 1933, there was still a lot of desire for regulations around alcohol production and consumption.
In Virginia, the Department of Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) was created. The ABC board still exists today, as it puts all of the laws and rules into effect on alcohol production and consumption. As far as speakeasies go, there are locations all around the area including D.C., and even one in Charlottesville called Alley Light.
In 1933, Virginia ratified the 21st amendment that repealed prohibition, and although it may have ended the lore of the speakeasy, they will always be a part of Virginia’s Hidden History.
You can learn more about the Madeira Bottle and prohibition in the latest episode of “Hidden History with Brian Bullock” on the newVPM History YouTube Channel. You can also check out the Hidden History website to catch up on past episodes. And stay tuned for more "Hidden History!"