The Push for Prohibition: Letters from the State Anti-Saloon League of Southern California, July 1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

At this point a little more than halfway through the year, which is the centennial of the enactment of the national prohibition of alcohol, the Homestead’s exhibit on the temperance movement, which for decades lobbied to limit or ban alcohol manufacturing and consumption in America, will soon be replaced by a display about the Prohibition years of 1919-1933.

The efforts of religious organizations, women’s groups and others to bring about this stunning victory would lead to the immense challenges of enforcement as well as the unforeseen consequences of the illicit trade in alcohol that, among other aspects, bolstered organized crime.  But, in the fervor of the crusade, attention was laser focused on the demand to drive out alcohol production and use rather than on the more practical aspects of what was to be done when and if prohibition was legislated.

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Los Angeles Times, 20 December 1897.

Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of letters from July 1910 by officials with the State Anti-Saloon League of Southern California, which was a powerful player in the temperance movement in greater Los Angeles since at least the late 1890s.

In late 1897, the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times featured a long piece about the League and its newly elected superintendent E.E. Allen.  It was noted that the organization was actively engaged in the pursuit of better government, the curtailing of gambling, and “the cutting down, slicing-off and the weakening in every possible way of the almost supreme power in politics, of the Brewers’ Trust and the liquor ring.

Times, 4 September 1900.

As Los Angeles grew rapidly, it would be like New York, which had tougher laws on the books, but where corruption in this way was rife.  Still, the article concluded by reminding that “the work of our league is strictly non-partisan and interdenominational” and would not operate by “vituperation or abuse, but by agitation and the quiet circulation of facts” so that the people could “outvote the bummers at the primaries.”

A mass meeting held at the First Congregational Church in September 1900 highlighted the efforts of the League to work with the police department in its aims.  A resolution was passed proclaiming that those attending approved of the police commission’s stated goal “to lessen the evil influence of the saloons by the absolute closing of the side entrance and the tearing down of the private boxes,” both of which were attempts to provide privacy and secrecy for patrons.”  Yet, the resolution acknowledged that the project was “so strong and so bold as to awaken doubt in the sincerity of the commissioners.”

Los Angeles Herald, 13 January 1905.

The Rev. Ervin S. Chapman, a long-time exponent of temperance and a champion of national prohibition and who was recently appointed superintendent of the League and would have that position for nearly twenty years, was behind a pamphlet that used a photo of a mother and her baby under the heading of “The Angels of Our Households” to fight against the private boxes in saloons.

In 1905, the organization spearheaded an effort to put an anti-saloon ordinance to the vote of Los Angeles residents by a provision of the city charter, this being a half-dozen years before the referendum and initiative were successfully initiated at the state level.  Notably, a newspaper ad claimed that the national League’s by-laws prohibited direct affiliations with political parties, though it did openly support individual candidates for political office.

This 1 July 1910 letter from the Homestead’s holdings is from a League representative, Nell E. King, to John Pierre Smith of San Diego.

The ad concluded by expressing the belief that those involved “have every reason to expect a magnificent victory if the friends of temperance reform whom we represent co-operate to that end.”  That victory, however, proved to be elusive.

While the organization and its compatriots, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and others, were countered by such groups as the California Prosperity League, which argued against Prohibition on the grounds of personal freedom in choosing to drink, but even more so about the economic effects of curtailing the manufacture and sale of alcohol, their success was best demonstrated in 1917.

Glenn Will, secretary to superintendent Chapman, wrote this missive, also from the museum’s collection, to Smith on 14 July 1910

As pointed out in this blog previously, the State Anti-Saloon League was a major force in the so-called Gandier Ordinance, written by a League official with assistance from its superintendent, to severely curtain alcohol sales in establishments.  Not long afterward came national prohibition, but, still, the passing of the Los Angeles ordinance was an enormous victory for the League and its colleagues.

Back in 1910, the organization was still working to generate enough momentum and support to get to that kind of a legislative victory.  As the letterhead on the missives shows, the League was dominated, as it always was, by religious figures, specifically male Protestant clergy.  This included its superintendent, Chapman; Rev. Hugh K. Walker, another Presbyterian minister; Congregationalist minister J.L. Parks, and the Rev. D.M. Gandier of the aforementioned ordinance battle.

San Bernardino County Sun, 29 January 1911.

The first of the missives is a simple one, dated 1 July 1910, concerning a request from Gandier, who’d left Los Angeles for northern California, for the organization to send to a San Diego man, John Pierre Smith, 300 pledge cards, in which presumably signers would agree to either support the League’s aims or the curtail drinking (or, perhaps, both), and League literature.

The second letter, issued on the 14th, and also directed to Smith dealt with a pledge secured by Smith and handed over to Chapman, but mentioned that the superintendent forgot the name given by Smith orally.  Chapman’s secretary, Glenn Hill, asked Smith to provide the pledge’s name so “that proper credit may be given.”  She added that Chapman “has so very, very much on his mid, so many burdens to carry” so that the provision of the pledge’s identity was appreciated as was Smith’s “great work you are seeking to promote.”

Sun, 18 November 1913.

The League continued its advocacy, with Chapman a particularly active presence.  In 1911, as he prepared to give an address at the San Bernardino First Presbyterian Church, the superintendent was noted as “one of the most interesting of speakers, a pulpit orator with much magnetism.”

In late 1913, Chapman issued a statement calling for the rejection of an attempt by “radical prohibitionists” who were seeking a statewide vote the following year to amend the California constitution to ban alcohol.  It wasn’t that the League and allies were opposed to the idea, it was that it was considered to be too soon without enough strength developed in getting the message out to the electorate.

Times, 21 November 1917.

The executive committee of the League added that pushing the matter in 1914 would “be an unspeakable calamity.”  Nathan Newby, an attorney and officer of the League, wrote “that the year 1916 would be very much better for such a campaign than the year 1914.”  In fact, an effort was mounted in 1916 and, though it carried handily in greater Los Angeles and the southern part of the state, it was defeated.

As mentioned above, however, the League secured victory in the Los Angeles municipal campaign in 1917 and then rejoiced at the enactment of national Prohibition in 1919.  Next month, we’ll feature a trio of letters from the League and a related organization for ratification of the national constitutional amendment, so check back for that.

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