The Quest to Find—and Save—the World's Most Famous Shipwreck

Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums
Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Anders Franzén lived for shipwrecks. An engineer and expert on the naval warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was especially obsessed with the old Swedish men-of-war that had once menaced the Baltic Sea.

When he wasn’t busy at his day job with the Swedish Naval Administration, he’d spend hours combing through archives in search of maps and documents, hoping they might reveal the location of Sweden’s great sunken warships. And when he learned that one wreck might still be trapped, undiscovered, not far from his home in Stockholm, he was hungry to find it.

For five years, Franzén spent his spare time searching for the shipwreck. He had little luck. Trawling the waterways around Stockholm—what locals call the ström—with a grappling hook, Franzén's “booty consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats,” he’d later recall.

But on August 25, 1956, Franzén's grappling iron hooked something 100 feet below. And whatever it was, it was big.

Franzén gently lowered a core sampler—a tool used by oceanographers to get soil samples from the bottom of bodies of water—and retrieved a dark and soggy chunk of black oak. The following month, Franzén's friend Per Edvin Fälting dived into the ström and see what was down there.

Vasa Diver
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Fälting had to work blind. Just 30 yards below the surface, the brackish waters were pitch black. The diver ran his hands over the mysterious object and tried to get a feel for what it might be.

“I can feel something big,” Fälting said to Franzén over a diver’s telephone, “the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s another.”

There was a pause.

“There are two rows,” Fälting said. “It must be the Vasa.”

 

The Vasa was the greatest warship to never go to war. Named after the Swedish royal family—the House of Vasa—the vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1625 and was earmarked to become his navy’s flagship. Gustavus had big dreams for the Vasa: He wanted the most lethal warship in the Baltic Sea, one that was as beautiful as it was deadly.

For three years carpenters, sailmakers, painters, woodcarvers, ropemakers, and hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen rushed to build the king’s vessel. The Vasa would be a floridly crafted masterpiece with at least 700 delicately carved sculptures, figurines, and ornaments: Angels, devils, lions, emperors, warriors, musicians, mermaids, ghastly faces, heavenly facades—all painstakingly crafted from oak, pine, and lime wood.

The boat’s exterior would be a palpable rainbow (gilded in gold leaf for extra measure). “The hundreds of sculptures clinging and clambering about the Vasa were an orgy of pink naked flesh, of steel-blue armor, of sanguine reds, poisonous greens, and marine blues,” writes Erling Matz in The Vasa Catalog. As Lars-Åke Kvarning writes in Scientific American, these ornaments had many purposes: “To encourage friends, intimidate enemies, assert claims, and impress the world with this picture of power and glory.”

Vasa Stern
iStock.com/rusm

The ship itself was constructed from 1000 oak trees and had three decks, including a stack of two gundecks, which would hold 64 cannons. The design was unprecedented in its size and complexity.

King Gustavus, famous for his military prowess, demanded it. At the time, he controlled “Finland, Estonia, and [Latvia], and he had just won the small part of Russia that touches the Gulf of Finland,” Kvarning writes. “By thus excluding the czar from the Baltic, he had nearly made [the Baltic] sea into a Swedish lake.” He was also juggling multiple wars and was anxious to get his hands on a new warship that would help preserve his dominance. He told the builders to make haste.

It was a foolish decision. In the early 17th century, constructing a functional ship was a matter of trial and error. (And according to Matz, there was a lot of error: In the 1620s, of the 15 naval ships Sweden lost, only two sank in the heat of battle.) There were no calculations to do or construction drawings to make. A new design was usually partially modeled on its predecessors—but the Vasa had none. The shipbuilders had to basically eyeball it. Worse yet, the Vasa’s master shipbuilder died mid-way through construction.

Vasa gundecks
iStock.com/pejft

Baffled by the ship’s giant dimensions, the Vasa’s architects were never able to confidently determine how much ballast the vessel needed. They filled the hull with approximately 121 tons of stone but believed it needed much more. But the king, who had personally approved the ship’s dimensions, effectively forbade any alterations—and anyway, adding more ballast would have brought the lowest gundeck dangerously close to the waterline.

When the nearly completed Vasa began floating in port, the ship’s skipper, Söfring Hansson, decided to test the boat’s stability. He asked a herd of 30 men to run back and forth across the deck; after just three runs, the ship began to teeter precariously. Some of the ship’s officers wanted to inform the king that the boat was on the verge of capsizing, but Gustavus wasn’t in town. The problem was ignored.

On August 10, 1628, crowds gathered at Stockholm’s waterfront to see the Vasa off. After attending a church service, the sailors—along with many women and children, who were invited to join the maiden voyage—boarded the boat. Four of the 10 sails were unfurled and, guided by a light breeze, the vessel lurched into Stockholm's ström just before 4 p.m. The crowd cheered.

And then it began to scream.

A slight gust caused the glimmering ship to tilt to its left. The Vasa briefly righted itself, only to return to its awkward, portside lean. The captain immediately demanded that all the gunports be closed, but it was too late—water had breached the openings. As one surviving crewmember recalled, “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

Vasa Bow
Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Dozens of men, women, and children began jumping from the ship. Stockholm’s waters became peppered with helpless, flailing bodies. Sailors clambered up the ship’s sinking masts. Within minutes, the Vasa was underwater and 30 people were dead.

The world’s meanest warship had been felled by a gentle gust of wind. It had traveled barely 4000 feet.

Hearing that his prized warship was submerged, Gustavus—who was away in Prussia warring against Poland-Lithuania—demanded an inquest to find and punish the people responsible. The captain and a few shipbuilders were tossed into captivity and an investigation ensued. Some investigators claimed the cannons hadn’t been tied down and had rolled to one side, causing the boat to heel over. (Not true.) Others claimed the captain had been negligent. (He wasn’t.)

The truth was, the Vasa was just top-heavy: If anybody deserved blame, it was the man who demanded such clumsy dimensions—the king. But to implicate an infallible man who ruled by divine right was to implicate God himself. Like the Vasa, the case quickly sank from public view.

 

There is a secret swirling in Stockholm’s harbor: The water there is too brackish and deoxygenated to support the wood-munching shipworm Teredo navalis. In salty seas, this flat little bivalve will gorge itself on wooden piers, hulls, and shipwrecks—slowly destroying all signs of man’s handiwork.

But not in the Baltic. Wooden shipwrecks remain preserved in remarkable condition. (This is especially true in Stockholm, where, according to the Vasa Museum, “Centuries of raw sewage dumped into the harbor have created a dead zone at the bottom, where even bacteria cannot live.”)

Days after the Vasa sank, Sweden’s Council of the Realm sent a British man down to salvage the wreck, but the mission failed. In 1663, a Swede named Albrecht von Treileben plunged into the chilly ström under the protection of a diving bell and managed to retrieve more than 50 of the ship’s expensive bronze cannons.

Diving Bell
Vasa Museum // Public Domain

After that, the Vasa’s location was forgotten for 300 years. The closest thing to a salvage mission came in 1920, when two brothers requested permission from the Swedish government to find the ship and turn the vessel’s oak into Art Deco furniture. (The request was denied.)

Franzén, on the other hand, was determined to keep the Vasa in one piece. Problem was: Nobody knew how. Nobody had ever attempted to raise a shipwreck so big or so old.

Crackpot ideas swirled. “One idea was to freeze the Vasa in an immense block of ice and let her float to the surface,” Matz writes. “The idea was then to tow the iceberg to a suitable position and let it melt in the sun, whereupon the Vasa would emerge.” There was even talk of lifting the ship by filling the empty hull with ping pong balls.

Vasa blueprints
Illustration by Bertil Erkhammar, courtesy of the Vasa Museum

Thankfully, Franzén’s discovery generated so much interest in the Swedish media that the navy offered to supply boats and train divers, while the Neptune Salvaging Company generously offered to return the ship to the surface pro bono. Divers would use water jets to dig tunnels beneath the shipwreck. Heavy cables would be piped through these passages, creating a basket that could help lift the ship.

In 1957, the first divers plunged into the ström. Working in complete darkness, they carefully began the dangerous work of hollowing out six tunnels, ignoring the fact that tons of ballast could, at any moment, collapse onto their heads. It was a deadly workplace. “Girders, plans, and other paraphernalia meant that the air pipes and lines could easily get stuck,” Matz writes, “And they did.” (It didn’t help that, as the divers dug, they discovered at least 17 skeletons.)

After two relatively uneventful years, the tunnels were completed. The wires were piped through and strung to two pontoons (cheerfully named Oden and Frigg), which gently lifted the wreck 8 feet off the seabed. Starting in August 1959, crews slowly moved the Vasa to shallower waters and set her back down. They would repeat this motion—lift, move, lower—at least 18 times. After each successful drop, the crews would shorten the wires, ensuring the boat would inch closer to the surface with the next lift.


Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

But before the Vasa was allowed to surface, the hull had to be made watertight. The iron bolts that once held the ship together had rusted away, and the salvage crew had to patch and fill those cavities while still submerged. (They also installed new watertight hatches on each port.) This underwater handiwork took two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1961, three giant bilge pumps began purging water from the ship’s interior and the Vasa was, once again, kissed by sunshine. Within two weeks, the Vasa was not only above the surface—it was floating.

 

For years, the Vasa was housed in a misty, cave-like warehouse. It was there, in the Wasavarvet, that the ship took a rigorous shower in preservatives.

Vasa preserved in water
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

The Vasa's wood contained approximately 800 tons of water—and it all needed to be removed. Researchers, however, couldn’t simply let the ship sit out and dry, because the waterlogged wood would shrink and split. To prevent cracking, preservationists had to spray the Vasa with a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol (25 minutes on, 20 minutes off) for 24 hours. This process, which came to involve 500 automated spray nozzles, lasted 17 years.

Slowly, water dripped from the Vasa and strings of excess polyethylene glycol trickled down, hardening to form stalactites resembling fine white candles. When the PEG-shower had finished, the humidity in the storage facility had to be gradually cranked down over the course of 10 years.

By that point, archaeologists—who had to be vaccinated against diseases such as jaundice and typhus before touching the boat—had already sifted through tons of mud and sludge in search of artifacts. By spraying down the Vasa’s decks with garden hoses, they had uncovered more than 30,000 items, including clothes, personal effects, barrels of meat, candlesticks, coins, and a piece of glassware containing a 66-proof alcohol. (“I can testify, from personal experience, that the liquor was good,” Kvarning wrote.) Divers also combed the ship’s watery gravesite to recover thousands more objects.

Vasa in PEG Solution
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Of these, every wooden artifact was dunked into a vat of polyethylene glycol solution. Dozens of cast-iron cannonballs—which had rusted so much that they now weighed as much as a Styrofoam balls—were dried in hydrogen heated to more than 1900°F. Six of the Vasa’s crumbling sails, which could only be cleaned while submerged in liquid, were dried in a mixture of alcohol and the solvent xylene. (They took more than a decade to conserve.)

Meanwhile, the Vasa’s sterncastle—the elaborate perch protruding from the ship’s rear—had fallen into shambles. “[W]orkers had to identify and locate many thousands of structural components, ranging from heavy beams to tiny bits of wood—a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to be assembled without benefit of blueprints,” Kvarning writes.

Otherwise, the whole of the Vasa remained in fantastic condition. The fine ornamentations, although missing their brilliant colors, were still magnificent in their details.

Today, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2000, the humidity in Stockholm was so high that the presence of soggy museum visitors caused sulfur buried in the ship’s wood to produce corrosive acids. The ship is also shapeshifting. To monitor wood deformation, geodetic measuring devices are being used to map slight changes in the ship’s shape (which is currently settling 1 millimeter every year [PDF]). To combat a potential breakdown, carpenters have built a replica of the Vasa’s hull, which is undergoing a battery of stress tests that will hopefully teach preservationists how to improve the ship’s stability.


Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

That hard work, however, has already paid off. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most popular cultural institution in all of Scandinavia. Home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship, the place is more than a vital time capsule—it’s an homage to an ongoing rescue mission more than 300 years in the making.

100 Years Later: 50 Facts About Prohibition

The sheriff of Orange County, California, dumping bootleg booze during Prohibition
The sheriff of Orange County, California, dumping bootleg booze during Prohibition
Orange County Archives, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

For 13 years, the United States had a constitutional ban on booze. By 1920, the chorus of citizens who didn't want the "corrupting" effects of alcohol ruining society had grown loud enough that the government acted to shut down booze-based business—and on January 17, 1920, Prohibition in the U.S. officially went into effect. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."

Try considering what life might be like without a local pub or easy access to bottles of wine while you read these 50 not-at-all-dry facts about Prohibition.

1. Prohibition's roots are as old as the colonies.

November 1931: Evening dressed revellers buying their drinks at a bar at the time of prohibition
Revellers buying their drinks at a bar in 1931, when Prohibition was in full effect
Keystone/Getty Images

Distilled spirits were the first domestic product to be taxed by the nascent federal government, led by President George Washington, as a way to raise a significant amount of money from a popular luxury item. The tax also found support with social reformers, who hoped this "sin tax" would stop people from drinking as much.

2. Early Americans protested prohibition back then, too.

Farmers and distillers refusing to pay the tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion, which saw armed resistance challenge Washington's militia. The resistance ultimately fell apart, and two men were convicted of treason. (Washington later pardoned them.)

3. Maine got an early start on prohibition.

The first state to outlaw alcohol was Maine, which passed its law in 1851 thanks largely to the local Temperance movement leader and Quaker mayor of Portland, Neal Dow. After four years under the law, a mob of 3000 stormed city hall in 1855 when "[t]he city’s Irish working-class residents found out their teetotaling, saloon-raiding mayor was storing $1600 worth of liquor at City Hall," according to Smithsonian.com. Oops.

4. Kansas prohibited alcohol in its constitution.

Maine's prohibition test led to several other states adopting similar laws, but Kansas was the first to have a constitutional ban on alcohol manufacturing and sales. Voters passed the amendment in November 1880, and their state legislature made manufacturing alcohol a misdemeanor shortly after.

5. The Supreme Court once called alcohol "evil."

Peter Mugler set up a brewery in Kansas in 1877, and the constitutional ban made his business worthless. So when he was indicted on charges of violating the new ban, he appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court ... where he lost. In the 8-1 decision, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that the court had to consider the social deterioration caused by alcohol and that "idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime existing in the country are, in some degree at least, traceable to this evil."

6. Prohibition had a trial run during WWI.

Americans got a taste of prohibition when the Wartime Prohibition Act passed and took effect June 30, 1919. The idea behind the act was to preserve grain for the war effort.

7. The Prohibition Party mascot was a camel.

A photo of a camel looking into the camera
Servet TURAN/iStock via Getty Images

Republicans have the elephant. Democrats have the donkey. The Prohibition Party had the camel, a perfect symbol for not drinking.

8. Economists were in favor of Prohibition.

Many economists, including the former president of the American Economic Association, Dr. Irving Fisher, thought prohibiting alcohol would have a positive effect on the nation's economy. One major target was "Blue Monday," the wasted day of productivity following a Sunday of heavy drinking.

9. Prohibition was entangled with nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments.

While alcohol was the main enemy, communities that favored alcohol (like Catholic immigrant groups) also came under fire. Nativist rhetoric was used alongside anti-alcohol arguments that railed against alcohol as an agent of social corrosion, and at least one national Prohibition figure, Bishop James Cannon, openly used anti-Catholic language.

10. Income tax partially made prohibition possible.

Congress generally refused to consider prohibition because taxing alcohol was so lucrative. But after the income tax was established in 1913, representing two-thirds of the taxes the federal government took in by 1920, the fiscal incentive for denying prohibition was almost completely wiped out, paving the way for genuine consideration of the ban.

11. Some people believed alcohol turned your blood to water.

Odd beliefs and misinformation were common while Prohibitionists fought to get the law on the books. One belief was that your blood would become water if you drank, a notion popularized by the "Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction." But it's not the only such strange belief.

12. Prohibition rebooted the KKK.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan gather for a ceremony in the 1920s
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

Because of the connection between Prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiment, the then-diminished Ku Klux Klan used the 18th Amendment and its social backers as a means of resurgence. The racist organization recruited from Protestant Prohibition groups and provided foot soldiers for raids where law enforcement lacked funds and people.

13. Anti-German sentiment gave prohibition a boost during WWI.

With its connection to nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the Prohibition movement got a big boost when the United States entered WWI against Germany. Since German Americans ran a majority of the breweries, dry activists argued that buying alcohol was akin to supporting the enemy.

14. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act.

While the 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, the Volstead Act defined what "intoxicating liquors" were and set the parameters for enforcing the new rule. Although publicly agnostic on the wet vs. dry issue, President Wilson vetoed the bill and declared that "personal habits and customs of large numbers of our people" should be legislated with greater caution. However, Congress overrode his veto.

15. Anti-alcohol groups claimed wine was made with cockroaches.

Dry pastor T. P. Hunt warned people off Madeira wine by saying it was "common practice" to make it with a bag of cockroaches.

16. Prohibition supporters also claimed your brain could catch fire …

Prohibition fan George McCandlish said that he'd seen a dead man's brain burst into flame when doctors tested it for alcohol with a lit match.

17. … And that your liver would grow to be 25 pounds.

Drinking does damage the liver, no doubt, but Prohibitionists exaggerated its effect in a bizarre direction when claiming the organ (which is normally about three pounds) could swell up to as much as 25 pounds while drinking.

18. Prohibition proponents also claimed that second-hand alcohol smelling would hurt unborn children.

Alfred Ploetz was a German who moved to Massachusetts in 1890 and wrote in The Influence of Alcohol Upon Race that pregnant women who merely smelled alcohol risked giving birth to deformed babies. He later moved back to Germany and joined the Nazi party as a prominent eugenicist.

19. Prohibition helped women get the vote.

Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) who marched on Washington DC to present a petition supporting prohibition.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Women were major leaders of the temperance movement, arguing that alcohol made men waste money, become violent, and destroy families. Frances Willard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union called the movement a "war of mothers and daughters, sisters, and wives." Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also created the Women's State Temperance Society. In nationalizing a cause women cared about, Prohibitionists saw their success as working hand-in-hand with progress toward allowing women to vote. They managed to succeed without that, but the 19th Amendment, which granted women's suffrage, was ratified only seven months after the 18th.

20. The 18th Amendment didn't actually make drinking alcohol illegal.

As you can tell by the prohibitive language on manufacturing, selling, and transporting, the 18th Amendment didn't outlaw drinking hooch per se. There was just a lot less of it to go around.

21. There were 1520 federal agents focused on battling booze.

The Department of the Treasury and the Coast Guard were responsible for enforcing Prohibition, and 1520 agents—many with little training—combated breweries, home operations, and smugglers on land and sea.

22. Doctors had a medical loophole during Prohibition.

Medical professionals lobbied to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes while the drug was illegal. Thousands of doctors and pharmacists got official licenses and created a lucrative side gig. Still, there were limits on how much a patient could get: A pint every 10 days.

23. Clergy could also serve sacramental wine during Prohibition.

In 1922, IRS head and main Prohibition regulator David Blair lifted the ban on wine for religious use. It's likely that most local officials let churches use wine even before then.

24. The British refused to help crack down on illegal smuggling.

During Prohibition, British-run Nassau in the Bahamas became a smuggling hub, so the American government repeatedly asked the British government to help shut it down. They did not—probably because alcohol imports to the Bahamas jumped from 5000 quarts to 10 million between 1917 and 1922, and the government collected tariffs on all of it.

25. Winston Churchill had a doctor's note for alcohol so he could drink in America during Prohibition.

Winston Churchill takes a drink at a luncheon
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Prescriptions for medicinal alcohol were a luxury, and there was that pesky cap on how much you could get—unless you were Winston Churchill. Not only was his prescription for an "indefinite" amount of alcohol, the doctor put a minimum limit of 250 cubic centimeters (a little more than 8 ounces) on it.

26. Breweries started making ice cream and pottery during Prohibition.

While the church helped keep the wine industry afloat, beer brewers had to transition to survive. The equipment, right down to the refrigerated trucks, made ice cream a lucrative change for Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling, and Coors built and expanded their bottling company to make pottery and ceramic tubing for the military.

27. They also made beer without the alcohol.

It probably can't technically be called beer, but Anheuser-Busch also predicted Prohibition passing and launched a cereal-based, non-alcoholic drink called Bevo in 1916.

28. Anheuser-Busch had beer ready when prohibition ended.

In another sign of the company's forward-thinking, Anheuser-Busch got approval from the government to brew 55,000 barrels of beer in anticipation of Prohibition's end, which is why people could raise their glasses when they heard the law was dead.

29. People bought bread-making ingredients to make beer at home.

Basement Stills to Produce illegal Whiskey was a great way to augment or supplant family income.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Sorry, homebrewers: During Prohibition, it was illegal to make beer at home. Fortunately, breweries also shifted to selling malt extract to the public as a baking additive that no one actually used to bake with. One newspaper reckoned that enough malt extract was sold in an Ohio town each week to make 16 loaves for every person who lived there.

30. You could also buy a brick of grapes during Prohibition.

In a similar pivot, winemakers began selling bricks of dried grape juice that came with a warning label with explicit instructions on how not to let it soak and ferment into delicious wine.

31. Prohibition encouraged the Waldorf-Astoria to create the modern kids' menu.

Oases of adult fun, hotel restaurants used to keep children out, but with the threat of losing money during Prohibition, the famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York turned to the youth market with a special menu featuring Little Jack Horner and broiled lamb chops.

32. Medicinal booze really helped Walgreen's.

The burgeoning pharmacy credits milkshakes, but selling booze when it was illegal arguably helped Walgreen's expand from 20 stores to 525 in the 1920s.

33. Men and women started drinking together during Prohibition.

Before Prohibition, men and women were largely separated socially. The pub was a men-only domain. Once alcohol became illegal, speakeasies that were already breaking the law saw no real need to discriminate who they sold to, so women joined in the fun. Over time, men and women drinking and listening to music together in a crowded, sweaty room became the norm.

34. Prohibition gave birth to NASCAR.

Race cars speeding around a track
PICSUNV/iStock via Getty Images

The connection between illegal hooch and the sport of driving incredibly fast is a pretty obvious one: Moonshiners transported their illicit wares in the fastest cars they could build to evade police. Since driving fast is fun, people kept doing it even without cops on their tail, and by 1947, NASCAR was founded.

35. Brand-name booze became a big deal during Prohibition.

Moonshine was cheap, but it could blind you. Or kill you. So, if you had the money, you'd order something with a familiar name and a comforting label. Foreign liquor manufactures created brands specifically for the U.S. market to capitalize on the consumer desire to not be killed by unregulated hooch.

36. There was an explosion of slang during Prohibition.

Bathtub gin. Juice joint. Whale. Blotto. A lot of words sprung from the collective imagination while hooch-makers served white lightning to booze hounds on the sly.

37. Enforcement during Prohibition was tragically uneven.

While Congress and the president kept drinking, and the wealthy got by with pricey "medicinal" alcohol from pharmacies, police enforced the law to dramatic effect among urban immigrant and African American communities.

38. There was a lot of hooch at the White House.

Prohibition, schmohibition. President Warren Harding (who voted for the Volstead Act as a senator) kept a fully stocked bar in the White House and had frequent poker nights where everyone drank whiskey.

39. Congressmen kept drinking and had their own supplier.

Bootlegger George Cassiday brought bottles of alcohol to Congressional buildings in a briefcase, making an average of 25 trips a day. He became widely known as "The Man in the Green Hat" when he was arrested while wearing, ahem, a green hat, and banned from entering the Cannon House Office Building (so he switched to the Russell Building). Capitol Police largely let him go through unchecked, but the Prohibition Bureau initiated a sting operation that sent Cassiday to prison for 18 months.

40. George Cassiday estimated that 80 percent of congressmen drank illegally.

George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress, in 1930
George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress, in 1930
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // No known copyright restrictions

The bootlegger wrote articles for The Washington Post and claimed that 80 percent of Congress broke their own law during Prohibition. Apparently, they also left bottles lying all over the place.

41. Prohibition turned public sentiment around on tipping.

Before Prohibition, the public looked down on tipping as an outdated specter of the aristocracy. But with alcohol sales disappearing overnight, a lot of businesses suffered, so they cut corners by not paying servers as much—and encouraged customers to tip servers to make up the difference.

42. Drinking went down during Prohibition.

In the earliest days of the Volstead Act's implementation, alcohol use dropped to 30 percent of pre-Prohibition levels. It jumped back up while the 18th Amendment was still in place, but only to 60 to 70 percent of the original level.

43. Ending Prohibition took doing what had never been done.

In the United States, there are two methods of ratifying amendments to the Constitution: One is sending the amendment to state legislatures; the second is sending it to state ratifying conventions. The second method had never been used before the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, and it hasn't been used again since. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to approve the repeal of Prohibition, making the amendment official. Maine passed it the following day, and Montana, purely symbolically, passed it the following August.

44. Two states rejected the repeal of Prohibition outright.

Both South Carolina and North Carolina did not ratify the 21st Amendment. Even more drastically, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma didn't even call a convention.

45. FDR drank a martini to mark the end of Prohibition.

Prohibition lasted for 13 years, and when Utah put repeal proponents over the mark, President Franklin Roosevelt celebrated with a martini and said, "What America needs now is a drink."

46. Some states stayed dry after Prohibition was repealed.

As you might guess from the states who refused to even consider the 21st Amendment, not everyone was happy about going back to imbibing. Kansas, for example, prohibited alcohol until 1948. In Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, counties have to opt-in to legalizing alcohol. About 18 million American now live in "dry" areas.

47. The black market made $3 billion per year during Prohibition.

A haul of illegal liquor found during Prohibition
A haul of illegal liquor found during Prohibition
National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia // No known restrictions

Prohibition Commissioner Dr. James Doran estimated in a 1930 interview that the illicit alcohol industry pulled in $3 billion a year, with 25 million gallons of booze a year coming from "distillation in large, hidden stills." That's $45 billion in today's money considering inflation. It also cost the government $11 billion in lost tax revenue and more than $300 million to enforce.

48. Seventy percent of Americans now drink.

Despite Prohibition, Americans never fell out of love with alcohol. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 70 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had consumed alcohol in the past year. More than half reported having a drink within the past month.

49. Almost one-fifth of Americans think drinking is morally wrong.

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 19 percent of Americans said drinking alcohol was morally wrong, and a 2014 CNN poll [PDF] found that 18 percent believed alcohol shouldn’t be legal. So it may not be a surprise that ...

50. The Prohibition Party still exists.

Their platform is still rooted in Christianity and supports assisting vineyard operators to switch their crops.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER