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  • History Of Prohibition


    Enacting mandatory temperance instruction laws and making sure that they were strictly enforced was only part of the movement. Mrs. Hunt wanted to dictate the content of the instruction and textbooks. She was particularly disturbed that some of the texts being used were "not safe in that they did not preach total abstinence" and most did not devote at least one-fourth of their content to temperance instruction (Tyack and James, 1985, p. 517). She described her long search for acceptable texts as an "almost superhuman effort to secure absolute scientific accuracy, not modified in favor of occasional or moderate use of alcohol" (Bader, 1986, p. 99). But she was highly effective:

    In 1886, after persuading Congress to require the use of a WCTU- approved text in Washington, D.C., and the territories, Hunt wrote a petition to publishers with a checklist for selecting textbooks that would comply with the temperance instruction laws. Books should stress, she said, that a little drink creates an uncontrollable craving for more, illustrate the "appalling effects of drinking habits upon the citizenship of the nation," and omit reference to the fact that doctors used alcohol for medicinal purposes. Temperance should not be relegated to an appendix; it should "be the chief and not the subordinate topic" in physiology texts, she wrote. WCTU members, following Hunt's lead, barraged publishers with petitions signed by school board officials and educators. Aware of the market being created by the new laws and eager to avoid offending the temperance lobby, seven major publishers promptly submitted their physiology her endorsement. In 1891 she presented the WCTU convention with a list of twenty-five approved books. (Tyack and James, 1985, pp. 517- 518)

    The content of WCTU-approved textbooks can best be understood within the larger context of post-Civil War America with its rapid growth of science and quickly evolving temperance movement. In the decades following that war, increasing veneration for science occurred and medical research on the effects of alcohol flourished. In that environment:

    the temperance societies set out to diffuse the results of medical research through pamphlet and pulpit. But they were careful to diffuse only that scientific data which was in line with their beliefs. The research which supported God's ban against drink was good; the research which found for the moderate use of liquor was faulty, biased, bought, or downright evil. The drys perfected techniques for misrepresenting scientific experiments, for quoting out of context, for making final dogmas out of interim reports, and for manufacturing literary water bottles out of laboratory test tubes. (Sinclair, 1962, pp. 38-39)

    The scientific ideas promoted by temperance writers were clearly open to question. For example, before the Civil War they had enthusiastically taught the idea of spontaneous combustion of habitual drunkards. According to a temperance writer, "these cases of the death of drunkards by internal fires, kindled often spontaneously in the fumes of alcohol, that escape through the pores of the skin-have become so numerous and so incontrovertible, that I presume no person of information will now be found to call the reality of their existence into question (Krout, 1925, p. 232, superfluous commas in original). With the headline "Fire! Fire! Blood on Fire!," the Pennsylvania Temperance Recorder (February 1836) reported that a physician in Maine had touched a match to blood from a "common drunkard" and observed it bum for thirty seconds with a blue flame (Krout, 1925, p. 232). A schoolbook for children told the story of a man who was so full of alcohol that he exploded while attempting to light his pipe (Smith, 1844, p. 82). In spite of scientific refutation the idea had not died out as late as 1879 (E. M. J., 1941, p. 805), when a temperance writer described what he saw during a post mortem of a drunkard performed by two physicians: "After removing the top of the skull, for the purpose of examining the condition of the brain, they tested it for alcohol, by holding a lighted match near it; and immediately the brain took fire, and burned with a blue flame, like an alcohol lamp" (Asbury, 1968, p. 44, superfluous commas in original). Presumably the deceased's blood alcohol content far exceeded .08 percent!

    A temperance leader explained the effects of alcohol on the body:

    Dyspepsia, jaundice, emaciation, corpulence, dropsy, ulcers, rheumatism, gout, tremors, palpitation, hysteria, epilepsy, palsy, lethargy, apoplexy, melancholy, madness, delirium- tremens, and premature old age, compose but a small part of the catalogue of diseases produced by ardent spirit. Indeed, there is scarcely a morbid affection to which the human body is liable, that has not, in some way or another, been produced by it; there is not a disease but it has aggravated, nor a predisposition to disease which it has not called into action; and although its effects are in some degree modified by age and temperament, by habit and occupation, by climate and season of the year, and even by the intoxicating agent itself; yet, the general and ultimate consequences are the same. (Sewall, 1841, pp. 11-12)

    The fate of the habitually intoxicated was inevitable and "everywhere the same. Its succession of horrible excesses constituted a form of suicide, the more terrible because death was preceded by excruciating mental and physical torture. Fortunate was the victim who sank into an untimely grave before he had been bereft of reason, or deprived of his physical powers" (Krout, 1925, p. 229).

    Temperance advocates promoted the false idea that alcohol is not found in living organisms but only in decaying vegetable matter undergoing fermentation. They described it as resulting from death and decay, and asked: "Shall we turn away with loathing and disgust from the ... vulture gorging itself with carrion all quivering with putrescence and then drink [wine] sparkling ... by reason of a like work of decomposition going on within?" (Fumas, 1965, p. 195). Not only is alcohol found in living organisms, but every living human naturally produces alcohol 24 hours per day, seven days per week. It’s called endogenous ethanol production, and it doesn‘t wait until age 21.

    Temperance writers also skillfully manipulated language to manipulate thought and emotion. For example, alcohol is formed from the consumption of sugar by yeast and the by-product of this process can technically be described as an excrement, just as our breath carries the by-product or excrement of carbon dioxide created by our bodies and is technically also excrement. But since we ordinarily think of excrement as feces or urine, the temperance writers intentionally created disgust and loathing by describing alcohol as "the excretion of a fungus." Even the word fungus rather than yeast was chosen because of unpleasant association. So temperance writers and speakers could assert gleefully that fungi in grape juice "gorge themselves and leave their liquid excrement. That is what alcohol is. Now sing of your ruby wine!" (Fumas, 1965, p. 196).

    Sometimes temperance advocates seem to have simply created facts out of thin air to make alcohol appear less desirable. One wrote that the famous nutty flavor of madeira was caused by dissolving a bag of roaches in the beverage (Krout, 1925, p. 164). The much less colorful reality is that the flavor is caused by oxidation of the wine (Baldy, 1993, p. 396).

    As summarized in the American Cyclopaedia of 1857:

    The demand for prohibition, according to its advocates, logically rests on the assumption that alcohol is essentially a poison- precisely as arsenic, opium, and nicotine are poisons-that the difference between wine and brandy, beer and gin, a liquor containing five percent, and one containing fifty percent of alcohol, a glass of ale and a pint of rum, is one of degree merely, not of kind, at least so far as poison is concerned. They also argue in support of their position, that alcohol is a product of vegetable decay and dissolution, and hence necessarily hurtful-that there can be no temperate use of it as a beverage any more than there can be temperate theft, adultery, or murder-that, if much strong drink does great harm, a little weak alcohol drink must do some harm, and that there can be no temperate use of such beverages but their total disuse. (Ripley and Dana, 1857, p. 48)

    Temperance materials made no distinction between drinking and alcohol abuse, which were portrayed as one and the same. A typical poster presented the virtue and blessings of the abstainer on one side and the sin and misery of the drinker (synonymous with the drunk) on the other. An important organ for the dissemination of temperance educational thought and practice was the Temperance Educational Quarterly:

    In the Temperance Educational Quarterly, the advocates of prohibition described how temperance was to be taught in the public schools. Some articles gave scripts for teachers and pupils to use on Frances E. Willard day. Others printed pledges for children to sing in meetings modeled on revivalist principles. Others again told horror stories about drunkards and offered quotations from writers on the evils of liquor. The magazine featured prize essays by pupils on alcohol, smoking, and other evils and furnished detailed lesson plans. This pedagogy, like the textbooks approved by the WCTU, was one of moral absolutism, a luring world of virtue and vice.... Children were given "Thirty Scientific Facts" like theseto recite:

    Alcohol ruins the character.
    Alcohol prevents men from obtaining good positions.
    Nearly all business houses refuse to employ drinkers because they can not be trusted. They are careless, dull and irresponsible. (Tyack and James, 1985, p. 518) 9

    The textbooks endorsed by the WCTU reflected the view that "any quantity of alcohol in any form was toxic and when consumed regularly produced inheritable disorders into the third generation" (Kobler, 1973, p. 140). One such textbook asserted as "scientific" the idea that:

    sometimes one is sick or suffers very much because of wrong things that his parents or grand-parents did.... Over in the poor-house is a man who does not know as much as most children four years old ... because he is the child of drinking parents whose poisoned life blood tainted his own. Many men and women are insane because they inherit disordered bodies and minds, caused by the drinking habits of their parents; and the descendants of "moderate drinkers" differ in this way as well as those of the drunkard.... This is called the law of heredity ... one of God's laws, and just like earthly laws, helps right living and punishes those who disobey. (Fumas, 1965, pp. 193-194)

    Another approved textbook asserted that "One of the most destructive agents man has brought into use is alcohol" and explained:

    It has often been observed that children of intemperate parents frequently fail to develop into manhood or womanhood. They may not be deformed, but their growth is arrested, and they remain small in body and infantile in character. . . . Such are examples of a species of degeneracy, and are evidences of the visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the children, which may extend even into the third and fourth generations. (Sheehan, 1984a, p. 104)

    A temperance pamphlet, summing up allegedly accepted findings, stated that "the offspring of parents both of whom drink are invariably either insane, tuberculous or alcoholic" and cited cases of "small children with an hereditary yen for alcohol so strong that the mere sight of a bottle shaped like a whiskey flask brought them whining for a nip" (Fumas, 1965, p. 194).

    Some temperance writers even implied that merely inhaling alcohol vapors might lead to defective offspring through their descendants for at least three generations (Ploetz, 1915, p. 29) and others expressed great concern for "racial welfare" (Ploetz, 1915, pp. 14-15; Gruber, 1910; Stehler, 191) and called for "a hygiene of the life germs, race hygiene, eugenics, and [the] art of breeding (Gruber, 1910, p. 9). 10 Some of these and similar views would later be promoted by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini (Morgan, 1988).

    Suggested classroom demonstrations included putting part of a calfs brain in an empty jar into which alcohol would then be poured. The color of the brain would turn from pink to gray, and pupils would then be warned that a drink of alcohol would do the same to their brains (Kobler, 1973, p. 140). Or an egg could be cracked into a jar of pure alcohol and the curdled mess would be described as similar to the effect of alcohol on the stomach's lining (Sinclair, 1962, p. 39).

    The WCTU's Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction promoted as scientifically proved fact that:

    • The majority of beer drinkers die from dropsy
    • When it (alcohol) passes down the throat it bums off the skin leaving it bare and burning.
    • It causes the heart to beat many unnecessary times and after the first dose the heart is in danger of giving out so that it needs something to keep it up and, therefore, the person to whom the heart belongs has to take drink after drink to keep his heart going.
    • It turns the blood to water.
    • [Referring to invalids], a man who never drinks liquor will get well, where a drinking man would surely die. (Kobler, 1973, p. 143)

    The WCTU promoted compulsory temperance education so as to create "trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon" (Sinclair, 1962, pp. 43-44). To this end it required that textbooks which it approved "teach that alcohol is a dangerous and seductive poison; that fermentation turns beer and wine and cider from a food into poison; that a little liquor creates by its nature the appetite for more; and that degradation and crime result from alcohol" (Sinclair, 1962,p.44).

    At least one-fourth of each book had to consist of temperance teaching and publishers had difficulty selling textbooks that were not approved by the WCTU. "The cornerstone of the educational campaign was the absolute insistence that alcohol in any form and in any amount was a poison to the human system (Bader, 1986, p. 99). Many of the statements in approved texts were, at best, misleading and designed to frighten young impressionable readers:

    • The nature of alcohol is that of a poison ....
    • Any substance capable, when absorbed into the blood, of injuring health or destroying life, is a POISON. . . . Remember this- ALCOHOL IS A POISON.. ..
    • A cat or dog may be killed by causing it to drink a small quantity of alcohol. A boy once drank whiskey from a flask he had found, and died within a few hours. .. .
    • Any drink that contains alcohol is not a food to make one strong; but is a poison to hurt, and at last to kill....
    • Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison. Its presence makes what was before a good fruit juice a poisonous liquid. (Alcohol) changes a food to a poison . . . alcohol and all spirituous liquors are poisonous. (Billings, 1903, pp. 30-31)

    Not only did the approved textbooks describe alcohol as a poison; it was the cause of numerous physical problems and resulting death:

    Very often in chronic, though perhaps moderate, drinkers, the arteries, instead of being strong, elastic tubes, like new rubber hoses, become hardened and unyielding, and are liable to give way.

    [Among drinkers] in some cases the liver reaches an enormous weight, fifteen, and even twenty to twenty-five, pounds being not uncommon (Sheehan, 1984a, p. 105). Alcohol sometimes causes the coats of the blood vessels to grow thin. They are then liable at any time to cause death by bursting.... Worse than all, when alcohol is constantly used, it may slowly change the muscles of the heart into fat. Such a heart cannot be so strong as if it were all muscle. It is sometimes so soft that a finger could easily be pushed through its walls. You can think what would happen if it is made to work a little harder than usual. It is liable to stretch and stop beating and this would cause sudden death.

    There is one form of... disease, called alcoholic consumption, which is caused by alcohol. The drinker looks well, till suddenly comes a "dropped stitch," or a pain in the side. Then follows difficulty of breathing and vomiting of blood, then a rapid passage to the grave. (Billings, 1903, pp. 32-33)

    And the textbooks approved by the WCTU also implicated psychological problems as well:

    Many people are made crazy by the use of alcoholic liquors. In some asylums where these people are kept, it has been found that nearly one half of the crazy people were made crazy from this cause. Not all of these were drinkers themselves. It often happens that the children of those who drink have weak minds or become crazy as they grow older ....

    A noted murderer confessed that never, but once, did he feel any remorse. Then he was about to kill a babe, and the little creature looked up into his face and smiled. "But," he said, "I drank a large glass of brandy, and then I didn't care." (Billings, 1903, pp. 32-33)

    The approved textbooks appear to have been written with the purpose of frightening children into avoiding all contact with alcohol. One can only speculate as to how many children unnecessarily suffered anxiety and emotional trauma as they watched their parents enjoy a glass of alcoholic beverage with their dinner. But the WCTU was unalterably opposed to moderation. Kobler (1973, p. 140) pointed out that:

    Nowhere in all this gallimaufry of misguidance . . . aimed at children, or in any of the prohibition literature and talk addressed to adults, did there linger the ghost of a suggestion that perhaps one might drink moderately without damage to oneself or to others. The very word "moderation" inflamed the WCTU and the Prohibition Party. It was "the shoddy life-belt, which promotes safety, but only tempts into danger, and fails in the hour of need . . the fruitful fountain from which the flood of intemperance is fed. . . . Most men become drunkards by trying to drink moderately and failing." Even conceding that a rare few could conceivably imbibe in moderation at no risk to themselves, they should nevertheless refrain lest they set a bad example for the weaker majority of the human race.

    Thus, approved textbooks asserted that "To attempt to drink fermented liquors moderately has led to the hopeless ruin of untold thousands" and "It is the nature of alcohol to make drunkards" (Billings, 1903, pp. 30-31).

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