“Appalled by the Dangers of Intemperance”: Report of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Southern California, 38th Annual Convention, 18-21 May 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The last two years have included, in the Homestead’s programming, the commemoration of two critical centennials.  Last year, it was the enactment of Prohibition through the  18th Amendment to the Constitution and this year it is the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in federal elections.

When the stay-at-home orders were issued by the state, starting on 20 March, we were in the process of taking down an exhibit in the Homestead Museum Gallery for Prohibition and replacing it with a display on woman suffrage.  Quickly shifting gears, our staff worked to put both of these exhibits online through our website.

Long Beach Telegram, 19 May 1920.

We further explore the issues involving Prohibition in greater Los Angeles with today’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection: the Report of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Southern California at the 38th annual convention of the chapter, held 18-21 May 1920 in Long Beach, a city with a bent towards being “dry” since it was founded during the great Boom of the 1880s era.

As for the Southern California chapter of the WCTU, it made its debut in 1883 and that history was covered in this blog in a post about the chapter’s Temperance Temple, which long stood on the northwest corner of Temple Street and Broadway (originally Fort Street).  The relentless lobbying of the organization and many others, led by women and religious organization, finally paid off in the form of local ordinances and then the passage of the 18th Amendment.

Times, 19 May 1920.

Enforcing Prohibition, however, became a distinct challenge, as is all-too-often the case with passing laws.  So, although banning most alcohol production, acquisition and consumption was enacted in 1919, ongoing work was done by groups like the WCTU to pressure government at the local, state and federal levels to enforce the law of the land.

So, among the official acts of the chapter in its convocation at the First Methodist Episcopal Church, this denomination being particularly influential within the WCTU, were some remarkable platforms adopted by members to forward to federal officials in charge of enforcement of the Volstead Act, the enabling legislation for Prohibition.

Times, 21 May 1920.

One of the first pages of the report comprises the “Declaration of Principles” for the WCTU, including the assertion that “we believe in one standard of purity for both men and women” while also advocating that all people had rights of expression at home, in church and in voting.  The principal principle was:

We believe in the prohibition of the liquor traffic, the opium and tobacco traffic, the gambling house and haunt of shame; in a living wage; in an eight-hour day; in courts of conciliation and arbitration; in justice as opposed to greed of gain; in “Peace on earth and good will to men.”

We, therefore, formulate and for ourselves adopt the following pledge, asking our sisters and brothers of a common danger and common hope to make common cause with us in working its reasonable and helpful precepts into the practice of every-day life:

I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented, and malt liquors, including wine, beer and cider, and to employ all proper means to secure the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

The pledge was a revision adopted just two months prior to the convention  The avowed means to carry out these ideas were educating children, reforming the “drinking classes” through “religious, ethical and scientific means,” and “to seek the transforming power of God’s grace” in creating “a better public sentiment.”  In doing so, the statement concluded, “we may willfully transgress no law of pure and wholesome living” with this, hopefully, to “be worked out into the customs of society and the laws of the land.”

Telegram, 22 May 1920.

The four days of meetings generally included the call to order and morning worship, including a prayer service and the singing of hymns before business was undertaken.  With the jubilee (fiftieth anniversary) of the national organization approaching in four years, a Jubilee Fund was also in place and the opening day included a “march of delegates carrying American flags, bearing banners upon which were printed” mottos of Christian citizenship, social welfare, social morality, law enforcement, child welfare, scientific temperance instruction and world prohibition.  There was also a convention slogan in song form: “Work for Enforcement.”

Much of the first day consisted of reports from officers, motions for convention protocols, as well as a memorial service to deceased members, music and speeches, including by the state president, a member of the Los Angeles Social Service Commission on child welfare, and another speaker who discussed the topic of Americanization, a big concern of elite whites during the period of massive immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, Asians and Mexicans and Central Americans.


On Wednesday, there were presentations on health, working with the press, social welfare with military personnel, anti-narcotics, prison reform, the WCTU’s regional home for women and children, evangelism and missions, and “Work Among the Colored People,” among others.  There was also a reporting on the raising of just over $18,000 for the Jubilee Fund, which, nationally, had a target of $1 million.

Thursday included the adoption of resolutions to be presented to state and national officials on behalf of the more than 5,000 members of the association.  One called for the passage of congressional legislation “to punish violators of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution by American citizens in certain foreign countries” that had extradition treaties with the United States.  Another addressed a particularly regional issue and called on federal officials to work with Mexico so

that the border towns in Mexico shall cease to be a rendezvous of discredited United States citizens, who flock thither to engage in the saloon business, prostitution and gambling, thus endangering the safety of our homes and children.  We make this appeal in the interest of public decency . . .

For those in Southern California, one such place of “rendezvous” was Tijuana, where all manner of establishments from dive bars to plush casinos to racetracks and clubs catered to Americans eager to find legal means for drinking and other diversions.


Yet there was more to the WCTU’s platform than fighting against drink and two memorials passed that day concerned “giving Congress power to enact uniform marriage and divorce laws” because of “lax and inconsistent laws in several States” and imploring that body “to enact a law prohibiting prize fighting in these United States and dependencies.”  Others were about the increase of signatures required for initiatives to be placed on the ballot in California for the purposes of addressing taxation.

There were talks given in a five-minute format, including those about a San Quentin inmate, the enforcement of Prohibition, Sunday laws, bibles in public schools, and cigarettes.  There was also a presentation in the afternoon on world prohibition and a report on the women and children’s home, though much of the proceedings focused on the election of officers for the upcoming year.


The final day of the conference included morning addresses on “The Next Great Battle” by the heads of the state Anti-Cigarette League and No Tobacco League.  A resolution of thanks was passed and forwarded to the Long Beach Carpenters’ Union, which stated that smoking was banned at union meetings.  Discussion also concerned legislative matters, with particular attention given to the age of consent and a maternity endowment, essentially a government subsidy for expectant mothers.

The afternoon featured another discussion of over-the-border drinking and other questionable activities as the state superintendent of Moral Education and Race Betterment for the WCTU presented a resolution stating in part:

Whereas, Tia-Juana, in Mexico, is harboring the murdered bodies of decency and self-respect dragged just across the border lien, that attracts birds of prey from every section of our country to the unsavory feast; and

Whereas, this mass of corruption is not only a state and national source of infection, but a very serious local one, hurting the good name of our towns and city, filling our fails and courts with drunkenness and crime, making our public highways and streets unsafe, debauching our young people, and arousing all the baser appetites of gambling, impurity and lawlessness by its stench and putrefaction . . .

The call was for the WCTU “to fearlessly work against this border evil by government appeal” and demanded the candidates for office “publicly declare their attitude toward law enforcement against this border nuisance.”  It also insisted that there be “concerted action of all moral forces . . . in this crusade for decency,” but, of course, couldn’t advocate for more than that given the obvious issues of sovereignty involved.


This was followed by a resolution presented by the Orange County WCTU “deploring the present day modes of women’s dress with reference to scantiness of material and urging that women who are appearing on educational programs dress in a manner befitting public educators.”  Another was to encourage the women of Connecticut “in the interests of securing he passage of the Federal Suffrage Amendment by the thirty-sixth state,” this being the number required for ratification.  Tennessee, however, beat Connecticut to this distinction on 18 August and the latter followed on 14 September.

Addresses to the delegates included on work with the region’s indigenous population, with “Moral Education and Race Betterment,” and on social services from a representative of the state’s Bureau of Social Hygiene under the Board of Health.  Reports were given by those involved with the Home Center for Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in San Diego and the Frances E. Willard [she was the founder of the national WCTU] Home for Girls in Los Angeles.


After sundry business items were disposed of, the convention adjourned.  The remainder of the publication was mainly devoted to the reprinting of the minutes of meetings from the board of directors and executive committee; the president’s address; committee reports; reports of officers.

A listing of resolutions included ones mentioned above, but also a few others, including for the boycott of “business firms who are advertising  . . . for making home-made beer;” and about smoking in sections of street cars that prohibited the habit.  In the Special Communications section, there was a call to school teachers to establish “appropriate programs of a patriotic and temperance nature” to annually celebrate 16 January, when Prohibition officially began on that date in 1920.


Under “Other Items of Interest” were references to a celebration of the first day of Prohibition at an event at Broadway Christian Church in Los Angeles, and the “Prohibition Float,” the entry of the WCTU Southern California chapter in the Tournament of Roses, a little more than two weeks before the onset of Prohibition.  This was followed by financial statements for the organization and its component parts and the texts of the various superintendent reports.

The publication concludes with the constitution and by-laws and articles of incorporation for the organization and a directory of members involved in the committees and departments for the chapter’s branches throughout the region.  A state directory, index and advertisements are also included.


The report is a fascinating look into the structure, operations and mindset of the WCTU and its southern California chapter at the start of Prohibition and, while much of the attention was given to that “great social experiment,” there is much else of interest with respect to other social causes, political activism and religious sentiment embodied in the organization.  Much of this resonates a century later and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union remains active today with its mission of promoting abstinence from the use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco nearly 150 years after its founding.

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