The Points Interview: Lee Willis

Editor’s Note: The Points Interview returns for the twenty-fourth time, once again examining a chapter out of the history of alcohol.  Today, we talk with Lee Willis, author of Southern Prohibition: Race, Reform, and Public Life in Middle Florida, 1821-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 2011).  Lee Willis is currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and we’re delighted to have him discuss his new work.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Southern Prohibition traces the evolution of temperance reform in Middle Florida, a region in the center of the state’s panhandle, from 1821 to 1920. Middle Florida was home to the capital, Tallahassee, as well as the largest cotton plantations in the state. The book Cover of Southern Prohibitionfollows the changing nature of alcohol consumption and how tavern and saloon life changed over time.  While alcohol was the most popular psychoactive substance, the book points out that other forms of altered consciousness, such as the consumption of narcotics, were available to Floridians as early as the 1820s. Though there was very little social concern about recreational drug use during this period, these substances faced tightening statewide regulations in the early twentieth century. All the while, particularly from the late 1880s until the 1910s, Floridians were closing saloons through local option (a county-level referendum on “going dry”). What little discussion there was about opiates and cocaine focused on the substances themselves, whereas much of the concern about alcohol centered on the space (the tavern or saloon) where people consumed liquor and beer. Supporters of prohibition tended to be parents of young children and they were both white and black. The most powerful motivation for prohibition—in this region at least—was the desire to curb the spread of black saloons. Whites wanted to arrest the development of a potentially unruly underclass and middle class blacks wanted to curb the deleterious influences of abusive alcohol consumption in their communities.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Specialists will recognize that the book is unusual in its combination of a tight geographic focus, a long historical sweep, and a broader consideration of psychoactive substances other than alcohol. I hope drug and alcohol historians will see this approach as useful for developing a more in depth understanding of how reform evolved in different locales. For example, before researching this region, I assumed that temperance was not important in Florida and the Deep South until the late nineteenth century. When I took a closer look, however, I realized that the issue had an enormous impact on public life from the beginning of the territorial period.

More specifically, I think it is important for scholars to recognize slave codes and laws prohibiting the sale of intoxicants to Native Americans as part of legal suasion temperance. This insight is not original necessarily, but I think it is critical detail for understanding the movement in the United States. Southern states did not pass statewide prohibition (or Maine Laws) before the Civil War, but they sure as heck had statewide prohibitions against selling intoxicants to specific populations. For example, Florida did not pass a Maine Law when the movement spread in the 1850s, but the state did extend prohibition to free blacks (not just enslaved people as written in the slave code) in 1854.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The book has a lot of archaeological evidence that I think sheds light on drinking culture over time. Though this may make me sound like an antiquarian, I really enjoyed trying to recreate the tavern life in these towns. What I found somewhat surprising was the wide array of intoxicants that were readily available in the territorial period (1821-1845). French champagne, opium elixirs, and Havana cigars (among a wide menu of liquors and ales) were all imported and sold within this frontier society. Being able to produce images of bottles, pipes, and apothecary vessels unearthed from the sites of antebellum merchant houses was rewarding and I think it helped bring this world to life.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Southern Prohibition are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Even though the book spans one century (1821-1920), many readers may find that end date unsatisfying. There is so much popular lore about Florida and the Prohibition years that begs for serious historical analysis. The Middle Florida counties also experienced interesting struggles with local option later in the twentieth century that needs  more research.  I would have also liked to provide more depth on narcotics and cocaine use during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but sources ran thin.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Sam Elliott. I had never thought about an audio version, but when I read this question, I immediately thought of Sam Elliott. I suppose that choice reveals my affinity for The Big Lebowski.