By: Karen Dingle Kendus, Concord Township Historical Society
Previously, History Unlocked discussed the history of taverns and public houses in Concord Township (Taverns in Concord Township – May 2017). Not everyone was thrilled about the flow of liquor through the community. For the religious leaders in the township, especially the Quakers and Protestants, the increase in alcohol consumption was alarming. They had been preaching moderation for many years. By 1830, Americans above the age of 15 were consuming nearly 7 gallons of pure alcohol each year. This is about three times the amount Americans drink today. Religious leaders started preaching outright abstinence, and pursued governmental intervention in the sale and possession of alcohol.
Another group interested in curbing alcohol consumption was women. Alcohol abuse, primarily by men, was directly affecting the lives of their wives. In a time when women had few legal rights, and depended on their husbands for sustenance and support, alcohol abuse was a huge problem.
In an attempt to mobilize support for their cause, temperance supporters began societies to promote their ideas and call attention to the issue. Many temperance groups formed all over the country. The Delaware County Temperance Society was founded in 1835 and encouraged the townships and boroughs therein to join. Concord Township joined the Temperance Society under the name Union, and can be found in the meeting minutes. Temperance societies like these were so strong, that the state legislature took notice. In 1846, a bill passed authorizing a vote by those in each township to determine whether or not liquor should be sold in their area. (This law was later struck down as unconstitutional). In this pre-Civil War period, Concord Township voted to keep selling liquor in the township, 60 votes to 15 votes.
By the 1850s, support for temperance dwindled as the tensions between the north and south of the country intensified. As a matter of fact, the temperance movement did not come back to full force until after the war, and nearly the end of Reconstruction (early 1870s). In Pennsylvania, the state legislature passed the “Local Action Law” in March 1872 that had electors in each township vote on whether or not liquor should be sold therein every three years. Concord Township voted against selling liquor within the township in the spring of 1873, 96 votes to 56 votes. (This law was repealed by the legislature in 1875.
The post-Reconstruction period saw the most fervent support for temperance. The National Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 and even nominated someone for president. In 1873, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed and chapters opened all over the country. By the end of the 1800s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, led by Frances Willard, began lobbying the government for local laws restricting alcohol. Once the Anti Saloon League formed, bringing together many different social and political groups, and World War I contributed to the image of drunk Germans creating war, public opinion had swayed enough in favor of temperance for the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1917. It went into effect in 1920.
As it turns out, the easy part of curbing alcohol (making it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport/export intoxicating liquors) was completed with the 18th Amendment, which ended up being ratified by all but two states within two years of flying through Congress. Enforcing this law would be a whole different story.
Economically, temperance supporters expected the sale of clothing and household goods to increase, rents to rise (as neighborhoods were cleaned up with the closing of saloons), and attendance at theaters to increase (as citizens looked for other ways to entertain themselves). None of this happened. Instead, there was a decline in amusement and entertainment industries across the board. Restaurants failed when they could no longer sell liquor to pay their bills. There was also a loss of jobs since without breweries, the barrel makers, transporters, and waiters were no longer needed. And perhaps the largest consequence of the criminalization of alcohol was the lost tax revenue. At the time of passing, 75% of New York’s state revenue came from liquor taxes. The Federal government gave up a total of $11 billion in liquor taxes and it cost the federal government $300 million to enforce the 18th amendment. Income tax was supposed to replace the revenue gained through liquor taxes, but it did not come close.
Socially, the criminalization of alcohol did not necessarily lead to less drinking. There were a number of loopholes that led to continued drinking since the law did not prohibit possession or consumption of alcohol. Pharmacists could administer whiskey for all sorts of illnesses and bootleggers realized that running a pharmacy would be a lucrative way to sell their merchandise. The number of registered pharmacists in New York tripled during this period. Americans could also still obtain wine for religious purposes, so enrollments in congregations at churches and synagogues increased, as did the number of self-professed rabbis who could obtain wine for their followers. The law was not clear about Americans making wine at home, and while the stills were illegal, one could still buy them at a local hardware store. Unfortunately, with how lucrative the illegal alcohol trade became, the quality of black market alcohol declined. 1000 Americans died every year during Prohibition from drinking tainted liquor.
Prohibition had good intentions but led to an increase in the excess of alcohol consumption. The consequences were so severe that a repeal amendment, the 21st, was passed in 1933. By this point, the public supported decriminalization of the liquor industry and were pleased to see the passing of this amendment.
Ashmead, Henry Graham. 1884. History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co. pp. 190-192.
Case, Robert P. 1998. Concord Township: Progress and Prosperity in the Nineteenth Century. Kutztown, Pa.: The Kutztown Publishing Co. pp. 295-297.
Lerner, Michael. 2011. Prohibition. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/roots-of-prohibition/ Accessed: 6/6/2017.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2017. Temperance Movement and Prohibition Timeline. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/temperance-movement-prohibition-timeline-3530548 Accessed: 6/6/2017.