Today in History

Today in History: October 28

Temperance and Prohibition

We have only to look about us in this great city, to observe the traces of the deadly influence of intemperance. Everywhere, we face crime, disease and death, all testify to the necessity
of the prosecution of the cause, of steadfast and unwavering effort and prompt action
to lead to complete success.

The Whole World's Temperance Convention,
(New York: Fowler and Wells, 1853). p. 10.
[Address by Charles C. Burleigh, New York City, September 1-2, 1853.]
Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921

Unidentified woman, half-length portrait, facing front, holding a copy of the book Sons of Temperance Offering for 1851
Unidentified Woman, Half-length Portrait, Facing Front, Holding a Copy of the Book "Sons of Temperance Offering” for 1851,
ca. 1851.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotypes Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act providing for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified nine months earlier. Known as the Prohibition Amendment, it prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" in the United States.

The movement to prohibit alcohol began in the early years of the nineteenth century when individuals concerned about the adverse effects of drink began forming local societies to promote temperance in the consumption of alcohol. Some of the earliest temperance societies were organized in New York (1808) and Massachusetts (1813).  Many of the members of these societies belonged to Protestant evangelical denominations and eventually organized religion played a significant role in the movements. As time passed, most temperance societies began to call for complete abstinence from all alcoholic beverages.

The Anti-Saloon League, founded in Ohio in 1893 and organized as a national society in 1895, helped pave the way for passage of the Eighteenth Amendment with an effective campaign calling for prohibition at the state level. Their success is reflected by the fact that as of January 1920, thirty-three states had already enacted laws prohibiting alcohol. Between 1920 and 1933, the Anti-Saloon League lobbied for strict federal enforcement of the Volstead Act.

Sixteenth convention, Anti-Saloon League of America at Atlantic City, N.J., July 6-9, 1915
Sixteenth Convention, Anti-Saloon League of America at Atlantic City, N.J., July 6-9, 1915,
July 1915.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union, founded by reformer and educator Frances Willard in 1883, mobilized thousands of women in the fight for temperance.

I Never Knew I had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry
"I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry,"
Words by Lew Brown.
Music by Albert Von Tilzer, 1919.
Historic American Sheet Music: 1850-1920

Willard also worked for women's suffrage, as did many other women who found their political awareness expanded by involvement in the temperance crusade. Given their political and economic vulnerability, nineteenth-century women's lives were easily devastated if the men they depended on "took to drink." Famous for attacking saloons with a hatchet, Carry Nation's flamboyant activism evolved from her upbringing in an atmosphere of strong religious beliefs and a failed marriage to an alcoholic. Although few embraced Nation's extreme stance, Prohibition was viewed by many as a progressive social reform that would improve and protect the lives of women and children.

The Volstead Act ultimately failed to prevent the large-scale production, importation, and sale of liquor in the United States, and the Prohibition Amendment was repealed in 1933.

U.S. officials destroying liquor
U.S. Officials Destroying Liquor at the Brownsville Customs House,
December 20, 1920.
The South Texas Border: The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection

Taken from Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies in American Memory, the following recordings from the early 1920s lampoon Prohibition. "Dinnie Donohue" relies on the ethnic stereotype of a drunken Irishman, while "Save a Little Dram" features a minister complaining that his congregation is stingy with their gin.

"Dinnie Donohue, on Prohibition."
An "Irish monologue,"
Performed by William Cahill,
Orange, N.J: Edison, 1921.

"Save a Little Dram for Me."
Written by Will E. Skidmore and Marshall Walker,
Performed by Duke Rogers,
Orange, N.J.: Edison, 1922.

Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor and The National Geographic Society

National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society,
Washington, D.C., circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

October 28 marks the birth date of Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the editor credited with transforming National Geographic Magazine (external link) from a small scholarly journal into a dynamic world-renowned monthly. Born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1875, Grosvenor’s family immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen, where he became an honor student, eventually studying at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Grosvenor joined the magazine in 1899 as an assistant editor.

Gilbert H. Grosvenor
Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, 1927.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Gilbert Grosvenor was recommended for the position by a friend of his father’s, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was at the time, president of the National Geographic Society. Bell became his father-in-law shortly thereafter when, in 1900, Grosvenor wed Bell’s daughter, Elsie May. Four years after joining National Geographic, Grosvenor took over as editor-in-chief and in 1920, he was elected president of the the society. Grosvenor filled the dual roles of editor of the magazine and president of the society until 1954, when he resigned to become chairman of the board, a position he held until his death in 1966.

The National Geographic Society was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1888 to support "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge." The society's founders, an eclectic group of well-traveled men, considered a magazine one means of accomplishing this mission. They published the first National Geographic nine months after forming the organization.

Detail of Family Tree of Gilbert Grosvenor and Elsie May Bell
Detail of Family Tree of Gilbert Grosvenor and Elsie May Bell,
The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress

In its early years, National Geographic was a plain-covered journal with a circulation of less than one thousand. Under Grosvenor's leadership, the magazine developed its extraordinary photographic service and map department, ultimately boosting membership from 900 in 1899 to more than 2 million at the time of his retirement in 1955.

During Grosvenor's tenure, using revenues from the magazine, the society sponsored many notable expeditions and research projects including Admiral Robert Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole; Hiram Bingham’s 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu, and William Beebe's record-setting undersea descent in 1934. The National Geographic Society continues this tradition, and has sponsored more than 8,000 research projects and more than 500 expeditions around the globe. Richly illustrated within the magazine, these explorations of land, air, and sea have introduced millions of people to amazing new worlds.

Today, the National Geographic Society (external link) is the largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization of its kind. In addition to publishing its flagship magazine, the society produces a wide array of educational materials and programs. The subject of many of these is the conservation and protection of wildlife, causes long championed by Gilbert H. Grosvenor.

National Geographic Magazine, Volume 54
Books. Bound Volume 54 of National Geographic Magazine,
circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959