Prohibition, Ken Burns' newest PBS documentary, premiering October 2, opens with a telling quote from Mark Twain. "It is the prohibition that makes anything precious," he says; setting the tone for the three-part, five hour mini-series.
Throughout the series, Burns explores the causes and effects of banning alcohol, and how such a law pervaded almost every aspect of society at the time. What originally became a movement closely linked with women's suffrage -- wives were tired of their husbands coming home drunk -- morphed into a heated national political debate. As of January 17, 1920, the fifth largest industry in the country was now illegal.
Of course, making alcohol illegal does not make it disappear, and hypocrisies abounded -- dry politicians were getting bootleg alcohol delivered right to the Capitol and exceptions were made for those that used alcohol for supposed religious or medicinal purposes. Gang violence increased. In an ironic twist, with the rise of speakeasies, Prohibition ushered in a time of women's liberation, in which it was now socially acceptable to drink in public and, as one historian put it, "men discovered the clitoris." Liquor became an engine of the new sexual revolution and many females were no longer interested in teetotaling.
Burns' documentary explores how interconnected alcohol was with daily life, national politics and education. Banning alcohol made booze not only a forbidden fruit but also a sign of power, good and evil. This is not edge-of-your-seat TV, but it offers a glimpse into a time that sets a tone for how alcohol is used, and perceived, today.
Prohibition will debut on iPads and iPhones on September 23, and on PBS on October 2.
Watch the preview below: