The anti-alcohol movement, which was rooted in America’s Protestant churches, powered by philanthropy and female volunteers, and ultimately a powerful political force, was an organic response to a real problem. During the first half of the 1800s, the average American over age 15 drank almost seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. That’s three times modern U.S. consumption levels.
It was primarily men who abused alcohol. The effects included vicious fighting (eye gouging was popular), the dissipation of wages, and domestic violence. It was often women and children who were particularly victimized by drinking.
So not surprisingly, the temperance movement was primarily driven by women, specifically religious women. It sought, first, to moderate alcohol use. Then came an emphasis on helping drinkers lean on each other to resist the temptation to drink. Finally, the temperance movement sought local, state, and national laws prohibiting alcohol.
Amid even greater horrors, temperance became less visible and urgent during the Civil War. But after the war, the arrival of waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy brought spikes in alcohol consumption and production that reinflamed many Americans, led by Methodist and Baptist clergy. Starting in upstate New York in 1873, thousands of distraught wives and mothers organized themselves into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and became a potent social force. Local laws began to regulate and restrict alcohol consumption, and nearly every school in America used a WCTU anti-alcohol educational curriculum. Concomitant drives to clean up slums, protect children, and secure women’s rights often led to overlapping support for controls on alcohol.
The WCTU was joined in its anti-alcohol work by the Anti-Saloon League. The ASL also worked very closely with churches, and enjoyed many small funders, but in addition it attracted funding from major philanthropists like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John Rockefeller (who donated the current equivalent of $13 million to the League). When the creation of the income tax in 1913 made the federal government less dependent upon liquor taxes, the campaign for prohibition shifted into high gear. In 1920, production and consumption of alcohol became illegal nationwide.
Enforcing the ban would prove chimerical. Philanthropy’s long-running persuasive campaign against heavy boozing, however, had permanent results. Alcohol consumption has never since even approached its nineteenth-century levels. And some modern philanthropists (like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is also a leader of America’s anti-smoking effort) continue to support efforts to moderate alcohol consumption.