July 5 2006 12:00 AM
Drink in peace: A curtain from this unidentified saloon, believed to be in north Lansing, circa 1900, could be dropped to protect thirsty patrons from the prying eyes of passersby. (Courtesy of the Archives of Michigan)

On July 23, 1894, she petitioned the Lansing Common Council for help. She requested the Council “notify the saloons, hotels, drug stores or any other place or places where intoxicating liquor is sold. …that they must not sell, give nor furnish my husband, Mr. James Redmond, with any such intoxicating liquors.” 

Her request was less unusual than one might suppose; she wasone of five wives within a two-year period to bring such petitions against their husbands.

In the 1890s, saloons were an omnipresent fixture of American life. By 1909, there was one licensed saloon for every 300 Americans, and an estimated 50,000 illegal, unlicensed saloons nationwide. Many saloons trafficked alcohol, as well as served it. The establishments were frequently linked with public drunkenness, violence, prostitution and political corruption.{mosimage}

Lansing was not immune to these problems. In 1900, there were about 40 saloons around the state Capitol alone. Some saloons were less reputable than others. The Council minutes for March 9, 1896, provide one example. On that date, the Council revoked the license of The Okalahoma saloon. The establishment was cited as “a rendezvous for characters which makes the place a menace to good order and the safety of our citizens.”

Concerns about liquor and the men who sold it fueled the 19th century temperance movement. Temperance advocates initially favored moderate drinking and restrictions on alcohol sales, but as the movement gained ground, more adherents began stressing abstinence and even outright prohibition.

From 1873 until about 1900, women tended to dominate the temperance movement, and it's easy to see why; the 19th century saloons catered almost exclusively to men, with prostitutes being the main exception. Domestic violence, wanton spending, abandonment and other improprieties often accompanied male alcohol abuse. Most wives were financially dependent on their husbands, so an alcoholic husband could drink a family into destitution. It was a time when divorces were uncommon, and wronged wives faced few legal options.

In late 1873, a church in Hillsboro, Ohio, sponsored a temperance lecture. About 80 women decided to meet in church the next morning. The women then marched double-file to downtown Hillsboro, where they sang and prayed in the saloons until the owners agreed to close them. Soon, women throughout the Midwest were following their example.

A headline in the February 20, 1874, Lansing Republican referred to “The Praying Crusade.” “The woman's war against king alcohol has at last struck Michigan at Sturgis,” the article reported. “Every saloon and drunkery there was closed on Wednesday, and the saloon keepers and druggists all engaged to sell no more of the baneful drink.” 

The article also reported that similar movements seemed to be starting in Flint, Adrian, Saginaw, Lapeer and Monroe.

“Mr. Hudson of the Lansing House [a large hotel and saloon located at the present site of the Knapp's building] in this city has received an anonymous notice that he will be called on next Tuesday by some of the ladies; to pray and sing him out of the liquor traffic,” the article reported.

A national organization known as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union formed soon after. Abigail B. Hasty, a 66-year-old described by the union as “a timid, godly woman,” organized the Lansing chapter. She sent a notice to area churches and asked them to read it on Sunday, March 21, 1874. The notice invited “all the women who were interested in the suppression of the liquor traffic” to meet at the Central Methodist Church the following Tuesday. According to the Temperance Union's own history (penned in 1949), 60 women attended. That same night, the new union members attended the Lansing Council meeting and requested that only “dry” candidates appear on the next election's ballot.

The Temperance Union continued attempts to close saloons. At the time, Michigan was technically under Prohibition. (A state Prohibition law was passed in 1855 but rarely enforced; the number of saloons in Detroit alone tripled during the first 12 years of the law.) On April 6, 1874, the Temperance Union drafted an official petition requesting saloonkeepers “conform to the humane and righteous law forbidding the [liquor] traffic.” They formed a committee to visit saloons. Any saloons refusing to close would to be visited by a second committee of women and legal authorities. 

In this manner, the union claimed to have closed 26 of the town's 44 saloons. The prohibition law was repealed in 1875, and the tactic seems to have ended around that time.

Nonetheless, Temperance Union members continued to work for their cause. They sponsored prayer meetings and mass public meetings. They asked area ministers to deliver temperance sermons in their churches and use only unfermented wine for communion. They lobbied for “dry” legislation and successfully campaigned to ban liquor sales at the state fair. They placed water barrels in front of stores so that thirsty patrons would be less tempted to enter saloons. (Public drinking water wasn't readily available at the time.)

In 1902, Temperance Union members dedicated a memorial fountain to Frances Willard, the former president of the national Temperance Union. The fountain was originally located at the corner of Washington and Michigan avenues, and later moved to Potter Park.

Following the temperance explosion of the mid-1870s, the movement continued to have its ups and downs. It languished in the late 1880s and 1890s, but then Prohibition began gaining support in the early 20th century. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established national Prohibition in 1920, and the amendment was repealed in 1933. The Lansing Woman's Christian Temperance Union remained active throughout it all.

(Robert Garrett is an archivist at the Archives of Michigan.)