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Temperance Movement

The Temperance Movement

by Alice W. Campbell


"Temperance" by Piero del Pollaiolo (1443-1496), Uffizi Gallery
“Temperance” by Piero del Pollaiolo (1443-1496), Uffizi Gallery
Photo: Public Domain

Prior to the 19th century, the word temperance connoted moderation and restraint in appetites and behavior. Representations of the Virtues frequently depicted Temperance as a woman pouring diluting water into a wine cup. Early Temperance advocates in America urged the avoidance of liquors in favor of less intoxicating beverages like beer or wine; many people believed that small amounts of alcohol could be beneficial for one’s health. (Stearns, 1994).

Restraint, however, did not characterize America’s behavior. By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year – three times as much as we drink today. Among urban factory workers, this level of intoxication created unreliability in the labor force, dismaying employers. At home, women and children often suffered, for they had few legal rights and were utterly dependent on husbands and fathers for support. (Burns & Novick, 2011).

19th Century USA Temperance Union Pledge
19th Century USA Temperance Union Pledge
Photo: Courtesy of VCU Libraries
Thompson Collection of Lincolniana, M4 Box 1 f.1

During the first half of the 19th century, as drunkenness and its social consequences increased, temperance societies formed in Great Britain and the United States. These societies were typically religious groups that sponsored lectures and marches, sang songs, and published tracts that warned about the destructive consequences of alcohol.  Eventually these temperance societies began to promote the virtues of abstinence or “teetotalism.” By the 1830s and 1840s many societies in the United States began asking people to sign “pledges” promising to abstain from all intoxicating beverages.

Temperance Crusaders watching the rear of a saloon in Mount Vernon, Ohio during the Crusade of 1873-1874
Temperance Crusaders watching the rear of a saloon in Mount Vernon, Ohio during the Crusade of 1873-1874
Photo: Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society, SC 5354, AL00067

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)  was founded in Ohio in November of 1874, and grew out of the “Woman’s Crusade” of the winter of 1873-1874. At a time when women had few opportunities for influence, or even to speak in public, the WCTU began to mobilize women to reform society.  The organization spread across the nation. Local chapters of the group were called “Unions” and were largely autonomous, but linked to the state and national organization. In time, the WCTU would become the largest woman’s organization in the United States. The white ribbon was selected to symbolize purity, and the WCTU’s watchwords were “Agitate – Educate – Legislate.” (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, n.d.)

The temperance movement’s first successes were on the local and state level, but their aspirations were national. A number of other groups built on the foundation laid by the WCTU. The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, played an important role in the temperance movement’s push for a constitutional amendment banning the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” (the Eighteenth Amendment). The Prohibition Party remains the oldest existing third party in the U.S. Though women did not yet have the right to vote, the Prohibition Party became the first to accept women as party members. (Anderson, 2011)

Handbill published by the Virginia Anti-Saloon League, circa 1900
Handbill published by the Virginia Anti-Saloon League, circa 1900 (detail).
Photo: Courtesy of VCU Libraries
HV 5235 V5A58

After 1898 the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), a men’s organization strongly supported by Protestant ministers and congregations, took over as the primary prohibition lobby in America. Led by Wayne Wheeler, the ASL pioneered the use of “pressure politics,” a strategy that uses media, publications, and behind-the-scenes influence to persuade politicians that the public demands an action. Unlike the WCTU, which was guided by Francis Willard’s “do everything” philosophy, the ASL under Wheeler focused entirely on the goal of passing Prohibition–using whatever tactics were necessary.

To carry out this agenda, the Anti-Saloon League developed its own publishing house, the American Issue Publishing Company. This firm was based in Westerville, Ohio, and was headed by Ernest Cherrington. The Anti-Saloon League’s primary publication was the American Issue, but published numerous other tracts as well. During the League’s heyday, it issued more than forty tons of anti-liquor publications every month. (Ohio History Central, n.d.)

Temperance Meeting handbill, October 25, 1866
Temperance Meeting handbill, October 25, 1866
Photo: Courtesy of VCU Libraries
Thompson Collection of Lincolniana, M4 Box 1 f.1

Americans of all types eventually found reasons for supporting the temperance movement. The 19th and early 20th centuries were time of demographic and economic change in America. Urbanization, industrialization, the rise of the women’s rights and woman suffrage movements, progressivism, immigration and World War I all contributed to the society that voted to go “dry.”  Feminists like Susan B. Anthony supported prohibition because the abuse of alcohol so often led to violence against women. (Hamilton, 2002).  Anti-immigration proponents associated alcohol with Irish and German immigrants. The Anti-Saloon League fought political opposition from brewers by connecting German beer with treason in the public imagination. (Burns & Novick, 2011)

The Eighteenth Amendment was passed by Congress in 1917, ratified in 1919, and went into effect at 12:01 am on January 17, 1920. The temperance movement had triumphed. Their victory was short-lived, however, as many Americans made and drank alcohol in violation of the law. Bootlegging and organized crime stepped in to profit from the market for spirits, while law enforcement lagged behind the rise in criminal behavior. Prohibition was unsustainable. In 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, and manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol again became legal in the United States.

For further reading:

Anti-Saloon League Museum Collection, Westerville Public Library, Westerville, Ohio

Gordon, E. P. (1924). Women torch-bearers: The story of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Evanston, IL: National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Publishing House

Mattingly, C. (1998). Well-tempered women: Nineteenth-century temperance rhetoric. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press

Pressure Politics: The story of the Anti-Saloon League Peter H Odegard 1966 Octogon Books Inc. NY //  Reprint of the 1928 ed.,

Prohibition: A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, video excerpts.

Indomitable Spirits: Prohibition in the United States, courtesy of the Digital Public Library of America

The Temperance Movement, Courtesy of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library


Andersen, L. (2011). Give the ladies a chance: Gender and partisanship in the Prohibition Party, 1869–1912. Journal of Women’s History, 23(2), 137-161.

Burns, K. & Novick, L. (2011). Roots of prohibition. PBS. Retrieved from

Dumenil, L. (2012). Temperance. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Social History. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Hamilton, N. A. (2002). Rebels and renegades : a chronology of social and political dissent in the United States. New York: Routledge

Ohio History Central. (n.d.). Anti-Saloon League of America. Ohio History Central. Retrieved from

Okrent, D. (2010) Wayne B. Wheeler: The man who tuned off the taps. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from

Stearns, P. (1994). Temperance. In Encyclopedia of Social History. New York, NY: Routledge

Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. (n.d.). History. WCTU. Retrieved from

How to cite this article (APA Format): Campbell, A. (2017). The temperance movement. Social Welfare History Project.  Retrieved from




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3 Replies to “Temperance Movement”

    • You can find this out with a bit of research into the “National Prohibition Act” (also known as the Volstead Act) and both the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments to the Constitution. Good luck!

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