Monday, June 1, 2009


During the mid-nineteenth century, temperance - the movement to restrict the use of alcohol - became an important social as well as political movement. In 1852, the Middleborough Temperance Association was formed to carry "into effect the provisions of the recent Liquor Law of the Commonwealth and for the promotion of temperance generally". [Nemasket Gazette, December 2, 1852] Later, the Sons of Temperance, a male fraternal organization, was organized locally with the Assawampsett Division No. 34 established in May, 1858, and a second Rock Division about a decade later. These organizations along with the Women's Christian Temperance Union (W. C. T. U.) which was active following the 1880, helped foster the temperance movement in Middleborough and Lakeville. Particularly strong in supporting such organizations were the local Baptist and Methodist churches, as well as a national Prohibition Party which was established in 1869 and sponsored local candidates.

Among the most formidable challengers of the nineteenth-century temperance movement were the keepers of so-called "liquor nuisances", that is bars or taverns. Hotel keepers and restauranteurs typically looked to the sale of alcohol to further increase their business, and alcohol was frequently served clandestinely in such establishments in order to circumvent local laws prohibiting the sale of liquor. Temperance advocates worked diligently to convince such businesses to avoid the serving of alcohol on their premises.
Locally, the Nemasket House on (North) Main Street was reorganized as a hotel "run on temperance principles" on a number of occasions. In early 1859, Mr. Kimball of Carver took a five-year lease on the property, vowing to run it as a temperance hotel. [Middleboro Gazette, April 2, 1859] In 1883 yet another novice proprietor of the hotel indicated his intention of operating the establishment along temperance lines as well. [Old Colony Memorial, March 15, 1883]
The temperance organizations were also active in lobbying the community not to issue liquor licenses. And though they were successful in this, determined residents found other means of acquiring liquor:

During thirty years the town of Middleboro' has not granted license for the sale of intoxicating liquors, but the fact has been patent all the time that somebody has sold the ardent there. At a recent town meeting, an appropriation was made, and special instruction given to the Selectmen, to prosecute this class of offenders. [Old Colony Memorial, May 12, 1881, p. 4]

The $200 voted by the 1881 town meeting was put to immediate use, and by July, two illegal operations had been closed down. "There is a determination on the part of the citizens to thoroughly break up the nefarious business." [Old Colony Memorial, July 21, 1881, p. 1] Temperance advocates could rejoice that by the end of 1881, "the beer shops of Middleboro were all closed up ... as also were several 'private dispensaries.'" [Old Colony Memorial, "County and Elsewhere", April 6, 1882, p. 4]

In addition to the legal prohibition on the sale of alcohol, one of the tools employed by the temperance movement was what can be characterized as nothing less than the public humiliation of those found intoxicated. While the publication of incidents of public (and even private) drunkenness in lurid detail was generally regarded as acceptable, revealing as it did the negative impact of consuming alcohol, occasionally these incidents were nothing more than momentary lapses of restraint or discretion. Those found drunk frequently saw their names printed in local newspapers much to their dismay and disgrace.

Temperance advocates also sponsored alternatives to alcohol in the hopes of dissuading residents from seeking out liquor. "The temperance people of Middleboro' are agitating the idea of having a number of tanks placed on the street corners, during the warm weather of next Summer, and seeing them supplied with ice water. They are of the opinion that it will affect the sale of beer, and other light drinks during the Summer months." [Old Colony Memorial, "County and Elsewhere", March 16, 1882, p. 4]
Despite the active role of the Sons of Temperance, the temperance movement was regarded by many at the time as a women's movement, and many of its leaders were, in fact, women. (President Hayes' wife, Lucy Webb Hayes was mockingly referred to as "Lemonade Lucy" for her refusal to permit alcohol to be served in the White House). The movement had strong ties to the suffrage movement as well, further lending credence to this view. Many feared that granting women the right to vote would inevitably lead to the criminalization of alcohol throughout the nation.
The failure of Prohibition in the twentieth century undermined the work of temperance advocates and ultimately discredited the movement in the eyes of many. Though organizations such as the W. C. T. U. and the Prohibition Party remain active today, temperance, at least locally, is largely a movement of the past.

Assawampsett Division, Sons of Temperance, newspaper halftone of an original photograph, c. 1865
Depicted in the photograph are, front row, left to right: Dr. Ebenezer W. Drake, Arnold B. Sanford, Miss Abbie Coombs (later Mrs. Charles A. Wood), Reverend Levi A. Abbott, George H. Doane, and Andrew L. Tinkham; second row, left to right: Edgar Davis, Nathan S. Davis, J. Augustine Sparrow, Charles W. Drake, Frank Wilbur and Everett T. Lincoln. Notice the prominent pitcher of water which sits on the left. It has been suggested that the hand pouring the water belongs to Reverend Henry C. Coombs of the Central Baptist Church, a prominent temperance advocate.


Middleboro Gazette

Old Colony Memorial [Plymouth]


Wally Glendye said...

Outstanding article!

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