During the four decades prior to the Civil War, American society confronted increasing urbanization, immigration, and changes in the nature and structure of work brought on by industrialization. Many men and women, inspired in part by evangelical Christianity, undertook a host of "moral reform" movements intended to encourage self-control and cure such social ills as poverty, crime, and insanity. Temperance was one such reform movement, and its cultural and political influence extended throughout American society. The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, founded in Boston in 1826, urged members of the "respectable" classes to reform themselves and relied on "moral suasion" as a method. By the 1840s, working-class men joined the temperance cause by forming Washingtonian Societies, and the temperance movement began to advocate complete prohibition of alcohol rather than moderation in its use. In the 1850s, temperance advocacy turned to electoral politics, and in 1851 the state of Maine passed a law outlawing the sale and consumption of all forms of alcohol. Heated political debates over "Maine laws" ensued in several states and territories, with twelve ultimately passing such statutes.
Not merely a political debate, temperance permeated American culture through tracts, dramas, songs, and illustrations that presented stories of liquor-induced fall and redemption, not to mention the temperance conventions and parades that took place in all manner of cities and towns. Barnum, a staunch temperance advocate, promoted the cause of sobriety at the American Museum in a variety of ways. He presented The Drunkard, or The Fallen Saved, a melodrama with a moral message of temperance, in the Lecture Room. Debuting in 1849, The Drunkard drew large audiences and helped Barnum attract "respectable" middle-class women to his Museum in an era when theatre attendance had been the sole province of working-class men. Barnum also served free ice water on every floor of the Museum, employed plainclothes detectives to eject patrons "whose actions indicated loose habits," and forced male Lecture Room audience members who spent intermission at a nearby saloon (a long-standing theatrical tradition) to pay a second admission fee when they returned for the second act.
Illustrations about temperance from a range of sources.Ten Nights in a Bar Room, an engraving based on the temperance play of the era.
Engravings from the series "The Bottle" by British illustrator George Cruikshank.
Poster created for The Lost Museum based on period text and engraving.
Contemporary observations and artifacts about temperance in the antebellum period.Scene from The Drunkard
Barnum on the Democratic Party and Temperance, 1852
Barnum as a Temperance Speaker
"Teetotal" Pledge (Library of Congress American Memory Collection)
Temperance Convention Program (Library of Congress American Memory Collection)
Slate of "Temperance" Candidates (Library of Congress American Memory Collection)
"Crime in the City," editorial from Worcester (Mass.) Telegram, 1854 (The E Pluribus Unum Project, Assumption College)
Scholarly views about the meaning and significance of temperance in American history and culture.
Ian R. Tyrrell, Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800-1860 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979).
Bluford Adams, "Barnum's Lecture Room: Excavating the Politics of the Moral Drama," in E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Bruce A. McConachie, "'We Will Restore You to Society,'" in Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre & Society, 1820-1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992).