Carry Nation is a character Texas students should be learning about, but there is rarely more than a paragraph’s mention of her in the usual high school history texts. Students guided by smart teachers might find more about Ms. Nation, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Temperance Movement in general as it played out against the Progressive era, the creation and passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, authorizing an income tax, and the imposition of Prohibition after the passing of the 18th Amendment.
They’re all linked together in what I regard as a fascinating series of stories.
Two days after Christmas 1900, Carry Nation attacked the bar at the Carey Hotel in Wichita, Kansas, the town she was living in at the time, and exploded into history.
(Did I mention she was a school teacher at the time?)
This part of the story below is completely cribbed from the Library of Congress’s “Today in History” feature, which you should be reading at least daily (Those guys do great work, and I usually can’t top it):
Strike For The Cause Of Temp’rance,
Wield In Your Mightiest Blow…”Strike for the Cause of Temperance,”
Words by A.W. Carr, music by W. F. Heath, 1878.
Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music 1870-1885
On December 27, 1900, Carry Nation brought her campaign against alcohol to Wichita, Kansas, when she smashed the bar at the elegant Carey Hotel. Earlier that year, Nation had abandoned the nonviolent agitation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in favor of direct action that she called “hatchetation.” Since the Kansas Constitution prohibited alcohol, Nation argued that destroying saloons was an acceptable means of battling the state’s flourishing liquor trade.
Born in Kentucky in 1846, Carry Amelia Moore accompanied her family to Missouri in the 1850s. Her first husband, a physician, died of alcohol-related illness early in their marriage, leaving her to support herself, her young daughter, and her mother-in-law. Carry earned a teaching certificate and taught primary school for four years, before losing her position. At this point, according to her autobiography, she prayed that she would find a suitable husband. In 1877, she met and married David Nation–in just six weeks.
Arriving in Kansas in the 1890s, she became active in mainstream temperance organizations. The failure of Kansas authorities to enforce the ban on alcohol initially rallied some support for Nation’s attacks. However, her extreme methods and unladylike behavior ultimately distanced Nation from state and national temperance societies.
Eventually, state fairs and medicine show tours became Nation’s pulpit and source of financial security. Dressed in stark black and white, she promulgated her equally unambiguous views against liquor, tobacco, fraternal orders, and excessive fashion. Freeman Willis of New Hampshire encountered her on the state fair circuit. He later recalled the incident for a WPA interviewer:
The Belknap County Fair at Laconia was a great time for Dr. Greene. He had Carrie Nation…yes, hatchet and all…out there, once, for advertising. He spent a pile of money on advertising. And while Carrie was there the town was hers…as much of it as Dr. Greene’s money could buy.”An Old Yankee Innkeeper; His Story,” New Hampshire
Henry H. Pratt, interviewer, ca. 1938-39.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940
Yet, Nation’s celebrity was based more on her notoriety as a hatchet-wielding saloon buster than for an appreciation of her cause. Willis recounts that he saw Nation a second time at the Buffalo State Fair. There, she complained, “they don’t believe…a lot of them don’t…that I’m the real Carrie Nation. They think I’m a fake…dressed up to imitate Carrie. I wish you’d tell them I am the real Carrie.”
Many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers supported the prohibition of alcohol. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton often urged adoption of temperance legislation. Lacking legal rights to their property, their wages, and even their children, women’s lives in the nineteenth century were easily devastated if the men they depended on “took to drink.”
Learn more about Carry Nation and the movement to prohibit alcohol in the United States:
- Read the Today in History feature on the Volstead Act, which provided for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
- Visit the Kansas State Historical Society’s online presentation Carry Nation’s Hammer.
- Search across American Memory on temperance to retrieve a variety of resources on the movement to prohibit alcohol in America.
- The Nineteenth Century in Print collections of books and periodicals contain extensive documentation of the temperance and prohibition efforts in the political and educational arenas. From books such as the Text-book of Temperance and Ruined by Rum to articles reporting on legislative activities in the states, one can acquire a good overview of the strategies of those involved in these movements.
- An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera includes numerous items related to the temperance and prohibition efforts including a Family Temperance Pledge.
- Bands of singing temperance advocates often accompanied Nation on her visits to Kansas liquor “joints.” A few of the temperance songs featured in the American Memory collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 may have been in their repertoire. One popular theme concerned alcohol’s deleterious effect on the family: “Little Bessie,” “The Child’s Lament,” and “The Drunkard’s Child” are written in this vein. Hear one recorded version of “The Drunkard’s Child” from the collection California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell.
- Search on the term temperance in another sheet music collection, America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. Among its many temperance tunes is “A Parody on ‘Uncle Sam’s Farm’” which puts forward the thought:
…water is much cheaper,
and much more healthy too,
And never makes a man a fool—
which liquors often do.
…Cold water never caused man
in the gutter to be found,
And never, as I know of,
to feel upward for the ground.
- “Women of Prohibition: Carry Nation,” at PBS’s site supporting the Ken Burns film, “Prohibition”
- A Temperate Nation (blogs.loc.gov)
- ‘Women’s Christian Temperance Union’ Still Thing That Exists, Now Opposes Reefer Madness (wonkette.com)
- Happy Repeal Day! Here Are Some Things You May Not Have Known About Alcohol Prohibition. (huffingtonpost.com)
- Kansas Historical Society, On-Line Exhibit, Carry A. Nation Timeline
- Postcard showing the Carey Hotel in 1907 (familyoldphotos.com)