The hashtag #DryJanuary and this year’s #DryJanuary2020 connects resolution-makers committed to putting the brakes on alcohol — at least for 31 days. In Canada, one survey suggests that as many as 1 in 3 adults plan on giving up alcohol for Dry January.
Although newly popular today, the historic roots of collectively abstaining from alcohol go back centuries. And yet, this history throws into sharp relief the contrasts between the modern movement to go dry, which is focused inward and rooted in self-care, and the dry movement of the past, which was focused outward toward achieving wider social reforms, culminating in the 1920s enactment of Prohibition, outlawing the sale of alcohol.
Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and today, alcohol consumption is on the rise in the United States, where adults are estimated to consume an average of 2.3 gallons of alcohol a year — with high-risk drinking up 29.9 percent from where it was in 2002. Although it receives plenty of attention, this is nowhere near the historic highs that spawned the temperance movement.
One historian has argued that from the 1790s through the 1830s, the United States could well be considered the “Alcoholic Republic.” Indeed, by the 1830s, consumption of hard alcohol in the United States averaged a staggering 7.1 gallons a year per adult. Drinking was ingrained in social patterns and even encouraged from childhood, but the high volume of drinking by 1830 can be attributed, in part, to the low cost and increasing availability of whiskey and new distilling methods that led to the rise of illegal distilled spirits. For many, this was a recipe for addiction.
In response to the alarming rates of alcohol consumption, growing numbers of early-19th-century Americans started to resist popular drinking habits by publicly signing temperance pledges. Signers of these pledges tended to be deeply religious. Often, they would sign in the presence of fellow church members; others would sign as a family. The public nature of signing the pledge was intended to increase the likelihood that signers would keep their commitment to forgo hard spirits, tobacco and opium.
This pledge signaled a commitment to the temperance movement as much as it also represented a kind of religious conversion. The connection between the temperance movement and religion grew in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening — a Protestant reform movement whose aim was to perfect society through moral reform. As such, many who aligned themselves with temperance also took up other moral crusades, such as the anti-slavery cause.
Some temperance reformers overtly linked the two causes. In 1848, Frederick Douglass decried how “in the Southern States, masters induce their slaves to drink whisky to keep them from devising ways and means by which to obtain their freedom.” Speaking to an audience of Scotsmen and women, Douglass implored them to join the temperance cause “in the name of humanity.”
Others focused on alcohol’s attendant effects on women and children. One temperance poem from 1840 lamented how a father’s alcohol addiction compromised his family’s well-being: “He does not care if we should freeze/ Here in the night so cold/ He took your pretty cloak, Mamma/ You know, and it is sold.”
Women were at the forefront of the movement, in part because many had witnessed firsthand the effects of alcohol abuse, which too often led families into lives marked by domestic violence and poverty. By 1873, the movement became known as the Woman’s Crusade. Women took to the streets, praying and singing outside of saloons and imploring the owners to shut down their trades.
Many in the movement suffered personal heartbreaks. Temperance reformer Frances Willard (1839-1898) saw her brother and her brother’s son succumb to the ravages of alcoholism, which led to their early deaths. Willard went on to become the second president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) — the largest nonsecular women’s organization of its time.
Under Willard’s leadership, the WCTU mobilized beyond temperance reform, empowering its members to enter the public sphere of politics. Many adopted Willard’s “Do Everything” policy and lobbied not only for temperance but also for women’s suffrage, prison reform, dress reform, an eight-hour workday and married women’s property acts.
At times, the push for moral reform boosted nativism, as some temperance activists placed blame for alcohol’s endurance on immigrant groups that brought with them strong drinking cultures. A gradual mid-century shift in the temperance movement’s larger aims partially accounts for this. As the movement shifted from the goal of “moral suasion” — i.e., persuading people of the morality to give up the drink — toward the wider-reaching goals of seeking legal prohibitions against liquor sales and consumption, some reformers saw the powerful and growing political influence of Germans and the Irish as roadblocks, turning a blind eye to the fact that many Irish American Catholics advocated for temperance and prohibition to combat stereotypes of the Irish as “drunken Paddies.”
During the early 20th century, efforts intensified among the many temperance organizations to make prohibition the law of the land. Focusing first on a state-by-state strategy to outlaw saloons, reformers also worked to elect “dry” representatives to Congress. This strategy proved effective. By 1916, the “dries” had a congressional majority. A temporary dry law was enacted in 1917, ostensibly to support the war effort; then, in 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified by the majority of states, ushering in the era known as Prohibition, which went into effect on Jan. 16, 1920. Until its repeal in 1933, Prohibition outlawed the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” (but not the consumption of liquor) throughout the United States.
Temperance impulses were rooted in earnest desires to achieve a better society, and the larger movement was one that valued women’s perspectives and experiences. Although legislative prohibition was ultimately a failed experiment, the process of organizing for temperance created opportunities for women to shape politics; notably, the 18th Amendment was ratified a full year before a women’s suffrage amendment stipulated that the right to vote “not be denied or abridged … on account of sex.”
The temperance movement of the past is credited for a decline in overall alcohol consumption in the United States since the 1830s, yet alcohol abuse remains with us.
In the United States, more than 10,000 people are killed each year as a result of drunken driving accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 12 percent of women and 23 percent of men binge drink three to five times a month, respectively, making binge drinking “the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States,” leading to increased risk of health problems, most adversely affecting women.
Binge drinking also increases the likelihood of sexual assault, and studies have shown that “child abuse is one of the many types of violence associated with alcohol use and abuse, either as a consequence or as a causative factor.”
Despite the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, there is little thirst to outlaw alcohol as we did a century ago. In the United States, only about 34 percent of the population abstains from drinking alcohol, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged since 1939.
Certainly, the intent of #DryJanuary — or any of the other monthly sobriety pledges — is not to lead to a renewed temperance movement like the one in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, temperance reformers advocated for the well-being of society’s most vulnerable; today’s new year abstainers tend to focus on their own habits and self-care. The trend is not about collective action but individual betterment.
Even so, those taking on the Dry January challenge are linked to a longer history of those who sought positive change by confronting alcohol’s most dangerous consequences. In taking the opportunity to access the power alcohol has over their lives, #DryJanuary adherents should see themselves as part of more than a trend. They are a part of history.