"The Bar of Destruction"

March 21, 1874

Thomas Nast

"The Bar of Destruction"

Alcohol; Home Life; Temperance Reform; Women, Religion; Women, Wives;

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In this sobering scene, cartoonist Thomas Nast conveys the seriousness of the temperance issue in nineteenth-century America and, in particular, the perspective of the Womenís Crusade against saloons, which spread across the nation in 1873-1874, culminating in the establishment of the Womanís Christian Temperance Union.

The temperance movement originated in the 1820s to lower the prevalent use of alcohol by Americans. From 1800 to 1830, the annual per capita consumption of alcohol rose to its highest level in American history (three times higher than todayís rate), most of which was hard liquor, such as whiskey and rum, consumed undiluted. The situation prompted one historian to label the period as the "alcoholic republic."

Modeling their crusade after religious revivals, temperance advocates used moral suasion to reform problem drinkers. Some reformers also began to lobby for the regulation or prohibition of alcohol. In the early 1850s, 13 states banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol, but most of these poorly drafted laws were struck down by state courts. Nevertheless, between 1830 and 1860, temperance agitation led to a dramatic reduction in Americansí per capita consumption of alcohol and a switch to lighter beverages, most notably beer (partly due to the influx of German immigrants).

The Civil War interrupted temperance reform efforts and enhanced the liquor industry. Congress, state legislatures, and city councils implicitly sanctioned the liquor industry when wartime tax policies tapped alcohol distillers and retailers as a good source of government revenue. Various brewersí associations organized to negotiate with the government and to influence public policy. The war also encouraged drinking as an integral part of male culture, removed from women and families.

After the war, membership in temperance societies grew at an impressive rate; the membership of the Independent Order of Good Templars rose from 60,000 in 1865 to 400,000 in 1869. While most temperance advocates were Republicans, party leaders tried to distance themselves from the contentious issue. Democratic politicians, with large Irish and German constituencies, opposed prohibition legislation as an illegitimate government encroachment on personal liberty. Dissatisfied with the two major parties, a group of temperance advocates formed the Prohibition party in 1869. It attracted only a tiny (though growing) number of voters, but sometimes played the spoiler in the evenly-matched party politics of the late-nineteenth century. Some historians peg the Prohibition party as the deciding balance of power in the extremely close presidential election of 1884.

Along with temperance societies, the retail liquor industry experienced a post-war boom. The number of liquor dealers expanded by over 17% annually from 1864 to 1873, compared to a 2.6% annual increase in the nationís population. Critical attention focused on saloons, which encouraged overindulgence with inducements like free lunches with drink purchases, a free round to the dayís first customers, and free alcohol to underage drinkers. The saloon was an almost exclusively male space, full of booze, cigars, spittoons, paintings of nude or scantily-clad women, and (in the low-grade joints) prostitutes. Especially to women temperance advocates, the saloon became a symbol of the moral corruption of husbands, fathers, and sons through alcoholism. The saloons enticed men away from their families and their jobs, making them irresponsible and abusive.

Dio Lewis, a longtime temperance lecturer, had been giving a speech for twenty years which included a story about how, in the 1830s, his mother and her female friends had closed down five saloons in their small town by confronting the owners in their businesses with hymns, prayers, and pleas. In December 1873, Lewisís oration inspired some Ohio women to take action. The Womenís Crusade of 1873-1874 soon spread to over 900 communities in 31 states, with over 140,000 women taking part. Ohio remained the most active state, with one-third of the crusades, but New York, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana were each the site of at least 60 crusades.

At a typical crusade, male supporters prayed and rang church bells, while scores of women descended upon the saloons, where, either inside or outside the doors, they followed the pattern of prayer, song, and exhortation to temperance. Two weeks before this cartoon appears, a Nast cover-cartoon for the March 7 issue symbolizes the Womenís Crusade as Joan of Arc bravely battling Demon Rum. In the same issue, editor George William Curtis, an opponent of prohibition laws, is nonetheless sympathetic to the temperance crusade. The movementís driving force, he asserts, is "the inexpressible and far-reaching sorrow of suffering women."

The Womenís Crusade had some success in closing a number of saloons, especially in small towns were temperance reform already had significant backing. The enthusiasm of the grass-roots movement carried over into the formation of the Womanís Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in November 1874. Unlike the Womanís Crusade from which it emerged, the WCTU did not rely merely on moral suasion, but kept alcohol regulation and prohibition on the nationís political agenda until the 1919 ratification of the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages.

In Nastís powerful cartoon, the evils of the saloon are evidenced in the skeleton bartender dispensing drinks, the unconscious drunk on the floor, the men fighting in the backroom, and the violent graffiti on the wall. The central focus is on the well-dressed patron whose turn toward the opening door shields his identifyóhe could be any of the newspaperís middle-class, adult male readers. The illustration expresses the theme of the Womenís Crusade that the male bastion of the saloon takes men away from their families. The door is a symbolic threshold between the dark immorality of the saloon and the luminous virtue of family life. Entering the saloon on a mission of rescue is the patronís family: his innocent-faced daughter, running for her fatherís affection; his son, looking concerned with furrowed brow; and his wife, weeping in a widowís black attire. The circle of their figures is completed by the family home in direct view of the patronís gaze.

On the page following Nastís cartoon is another full-page, temperance cartoon by Michael Angelo Woolf, "The Social Juggernaut." It features a ghostly figure riding an alcohol bottle with liquor-glass wheels, pulled by the dogs of Ruin, Despair, and Famine, and crushing people underneath it. The issue also contains an illustrated story on one of the crusades at a New York City bar; an illustrated poem "Like Father, Like Son," in which a fatherís descent into alcohol dependence is mimicked by his son; and a back-page cartoon of a bottle of rum in prison for "manslaughter in the greatest degree."

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Bar of Destruction"
April 19, 2024

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