Prohibition

In 1922, New York City agents regularly dumped booze into the gutter during liquor raids, as pictured in this photo from the New York Daily News.

“Prohibition,” a new three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will air October 2-4 on PBS. Check your local guide for times.

Set in the era of bathtub gin, bootleggers and speakeasies, the series tells the true story of the rise, rule and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It was called the “Noble Experiment,” but it was in fact one of America’s most notorious civic failures, an object lesson in the challenge of legislating human behavior.

“Prohibition” begins with the story of America’s growing concern about alcohol abuse in the 19th century. In the face of a pervasive culture of men who devoted their time and money to saloons instead of their families, women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Carry Nation first demanded temperance, then outright prohibition.

The hugely powerful Anti-Saloon League took up the mantle in the late-19th century, setting its sights on a constitutional amendment banning the sale and manufacture of alcohol. The 18th Amendment was ratified on Jan. 16, 1919, and went into effect one year later.

For the next 13 years, America would be split by a fierce cultural divide between “wets” and “drys,” as Prohibition pit the city against the countryside, Protestants against Catholics and immigrants against native-born citizens.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, allowed illicit drinking to seem glamorous, encouraged neighborhood gangs to form national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago – about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities and the proper role of government.

A preview website for “Prohibition” is available at pbs.org/prohibition and includes video clips, opportunities for users to share stories, background information on the film and filmmakers and information on engagement activities.

The full “Prohibition” companion site with additional content launched this month and includes educational outreach materials and lesson plans which will enable teachers to use Prohibition as a historical lens to explore the role of dissent and protest in America and the role of civic engagement in society.

Full episodes will stream on the site for seven days after the broadcast, and clips from the film will be available on PBS’ free apps for iPad and iPhone.

WETA and PBS have also launched a social media campaign designed to engage audiences online in conversations and discussions around the themes in the film. Fans can follow Ken Burns on Twitter @KenBurnsPBS or on Facebook at Facebook.com/KenBurnsPBS.

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