Did prints help outlaw liquor in the United States?
On January 17, 1920, Prohibition went into effect in the United States. The 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, but it gave the country a whole year to prepare for the actual outlawing of the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”
The story doesn’t begin in 1919 or 1920, though. It took a lot of time—more than a century of work—to persuade the entire nation to give up its liquor. Generations of reformers worked tirelessly to convince Americans that alcohol was a scourge that destroyed lives and families.
In 1784, Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, published the first American medical treatise against drinking: An Enquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind. In subsequent decades, regional temperance associations were formed, and the first national group, the American Temperance Society was established in 1826.
Reformers made steady progress throughout the 19th century. In 1845, Maine became the first state to prohibit alcohol, and by 1913, more than 50% of the United States population lived in a state or region with some type of liquor prohibition. As the temperance movement grew, American prints reflected the changing culture.
In 1848, Nathaniel Currier published Washington Taking Leave of the Officers of his Army. This print depicted Washington’s final words to his officers following the end of the American Revolution in 1783. According to Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge who attended the meeting, the officers met in a tavern, and “the General filled his glass with wine” before turning to address his officers.
N. Currier, Washington Taking Leave of the Officers of his Army, at Francis’s Tavern, Broad Street, New York, Decr. 4th. 1783 [Lithograph, 1848]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
When Currier & Ives revised to the print in 1876, the image was nearly identical—except for two notable differences: Washington was no longer holding a wine glass, and his hat had replaced the decanter and glasses at the center of the picture.
Currier & Ives, Washington’s Farewell to the Officers of his Army. At the old Tavern, corner Broad and Pearl Sts. New York, Dec. 4th 1783 [Lithograph, 1876]. Courtesy of the Museum of City of New York (58.84.6).
The changes in Washington’s Farewell reflected the growing influence of the temperance movement on American life. But, prints could be more than just a mirror of the times; they could also be used as agents of the movement.
Strong words, both spoken and written, were the central vehicle for denouncing America’s culture of drinking. In a representative example, Virginia doctor Richard Carter took the time in his 1825 memoir to remind his readers that:
It is proven to a demonstration, that the immoderate use of ardent spirits, is more baneful to our commonwealth than devastation and war. For drunkeness is the annoyance of modesty, the trouble of civility, the spoiler of wealth, the destruction of reason. … A drunkard is a wife’s woe, his children’s sorrow, and resembles more the brute than the man.
Images also could communicate these temperance messages. A year after Dr. Carter published his memoir, New Haven engraver J. W. Barber published a pictorial denunciation of intemperance, The Drunkard’s Progress, or the Direct Road to Poverty, Wretchedness & Ruin.
J. W. Barber, The Drunkard’s Progress, or the Direct Road to Poverty, Wretchedness & Ruin [Engraving, 1826]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Barber’s engraving is one of the earliest American examples of a trope that would be regularly used by temperance reformers throughout the 19th century: drinking as the road to ruin. Many prints told cautionary tales that delineated a clear path from a man’s innocent first drinks to ruin (and even death).
Edward Gallaudet, The Progress of Intemperance [Engraving, 1831]. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
E.B. & E.C. Kellogg, The Drunkard’s Progress [Lithograph, 1846]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
With prints, artists could include a literal “road,” steps, or even railroad tracks down which the drunkard descended. The storyline stayed remarkably consistent all the way from Barber’s 1826 engraving to lithographs published in the 1890s.
New York Lithographing and Engraving Co., Inebriate’s Express [Lithograph, 1870]. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
Currier & Ives, The Progress of Intemperance [Lithograph, 1881]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Haasis & Lubrecht (publishers), The Drunkard’s Progress [Lithograph, 1884]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A.B. Graham Co. (lithographer), Milton W. Garnes & Co. (publisher), The Railroad that Leads From Earth to Hell [Lithograph, 1894 or 1895]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This general theme of progression allowed the prints to communicate a didactic message through a compelling narrative that was accessible to viewers of any age. Artists could also embed interesting visual details into the tale of woe to keep the viewer entertained. As the temperance movement grew, reformers began focusing their work towards children—hoping to teach them about the ills of drinking before they were old enough to take a sip. These prints were visually captivating, making them perfect for younger audiences.
One of the most well-known prints of this genre was Black Valley Railroad, which first appeared in 1863. Surrounding the detailed scene of a demonic railroad train fueled by alcohol are names of forty rail stops including Sippington, Brothelton, Idiot Flatts, and finally Smashup Rock and Destruction.
S. W. Hanks, Black Valley Railroad [Lithograph, 1863]. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
The print was copyrighted by New England minister Steadman W. Hanks and then widely reused by temperance groups including the National Temperance Society. It was advertised in Christian and temperance periodicals.
If we wonder where Americans would have seen these prints in daily life, the advertisements give us some idea. One 1869 ad in The Christian World emphasized, “It should be hung in every Depot, School-Room and Workshop.”
For all of the speeches, sermons, articles, canvassing, songs, parades, and prints that helped lead to national prohibition, the 18th Amendment would prove to be a failure. It became the only United States constitutional amendment to be repealed (by the 21st Amendment in 1933). Not surprisingly, the movement to repeal prohibition would have its own images.
Woman’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, Their Security Demands You Vote Repeal [Poster, 1932]. Courtesy of the Princeton University Posters Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Top image credit: National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, National Constitutional Prohibition by Your Vote Help Conserve Your Country’s Resources [Poster, undated]. Courtesy of the Princeton University Posters Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.