“We Seem So Near to the National Goal of Prohibition”: The Fight of the White Ribbon Army in the “Report of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Southern California,” May 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In spring 1883, the Southern California branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was established and for over thirty-five years, the organization waged a holy war against alcohol and its attendant evils. For most of that time, the WCTU local, as well as the state office, was based at the Temperance Temple, situated at the northwest corner of Broadway and Temple Street in Los Angeles, as it grew in membership and influence.

The major event of the year for the regional WCTU was its annual convention, which was held elevent times in the Angel City, as well as a few times each at Pasadena, Riverside, Pomona, Santa Ana and other local cities, while other host cities included Santa Barbara, San Diego, and San Bernardino. A prior post here discussed the 1921 confab, held at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Long Beach, but tonight we look at the assemblage from two years prior, which took place at the First M.E. Church in Bakersfield, the first time that Central Valley city served as host.

When state WCTU president Stella B. Irvine (the losing candidate in a Congressional race in 1918 in San Diego, though residing in Riverside by the time the publication was issued) delivered her opening address, she noted the presence of the national president of the organization, Anna A. Gordon, who was the secretary and companion of the Union’s famous founder, Frances Willard. Irvine described Gordon as “Commander-in-Chief of the White Ribbon Army,” another name for the organization, as it engaged on “the battlefield where the forces of Righteousness are waging a peaceful warefare against the foe, King Alcohol.”

Irvine then described “The Challenge of the Hour,” which was “the enactment of laws that will protect the home and make possible a nobler manhood and womanhood and a nation freed from the curse of rum.” 1918 was considered to be “the greatest year in the history of the Temperance Reform,” most notably because of “the submission of the Federal Amendment for Constitutional Prohibition.” Locally, there were the examples of such cities going dry as Colton, Sana Monica, and Watts “where liquor was so strongly entrenched and where our cause seemed hopeless,” while “the great city of Los Angeles has now no open saloon,” thanks to a late 1917 ordinance approved by voters.

Irvine trumpeted the fact that “the liquor interests made desperate fights, but lost the battle.” Still, she warned, “they are marshalling their forces to defeat prohibtion in every state where campaigns are on and, with redoubled energy, they are seeking to defeat the ratification of the National Prohibition Amendment.” The WCTU and others, however, were “the army of the living God, the forces of temperance” and “the line is not broken nor do we believe that it will be” so that “we predict that prohibition will be the law of our land.”

In her next section, titled “Loyalty to Our Cause,” Irvine observed that

Because we seem so near to the goal of national prohibition and the victory seems almost assured there is danger of super-optimist and a resultant inactivity on the part of those who should be most earnest to make sure the ultimate triumph.

In these days White Ribboners, of all others, should be loyal to the cause of Prohibition. WE know the enemy; WE know its wealth, its power, its insidious trickery, and WE should not be asleep at our posts of duty, as long as there exists a brewery, distillery, winery or an open saloon in our fair land. Notwithstanding the demands now made upon women and the fact that spare moments are at a premium, we should pause and consider ere we yield the work of our organization for that of others, lest we become slackers in the army of the Lord.

After discussing intensive recruitment efforts over the prior year, Irvine noted legislation introduced in Congress to prohibit the manufacture of liquor while the recently concluded First World War was being fought, with the WCTU and its “Great Woman’s Petition” by some 6 million women in support of these efforts. Moreover, any effort to put a statewide prohibition measure on the ballot in California in 1918 was discouraged so that all energies could be directed towards a national constitutional amendment.

The state president noted that “the patriotic fervor of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was born on the altar of the Crusade” because “the greatest service we could render our government was to work for the annihilation of that which was destroying its manhood and womanhood and thus endangering its perpetuity.” The organization expressed its loyalty to country through the flag salute and Irvine added, “we love our flag and, somehow, Old Glory seems dearer to us than ever as mingled with its shining folds are the flags of other nations to whose help we have gone in this awful crisis in our world’s history.”

She ended her remarks by stating that “a year of earnest toil is ended” and she thanks all “who have so nobly responded to every chord in the symphony of our work and who have sacrificed for it.” She noted the vital nature of the success of “the White Ribbon Army of Southern California” while adding that “as the new year opens before us, let us enter every door of opportunity, accepting the Challenge of the Hour.”

Corresponding Secretary Kara Smart Root’s report included the creation of new local unions in San Pedro, Hermon (a neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles adjacent to South Pasadena,) and Zelzah (which became Northridge, a San Fernando Valley community of Los Angeles;) a Young People’s Branch in Pomona and Hermosa Beach; and Loyal Temperance Legions in Hermon, as well as Villa Park and Tustin in Orange County. There were also “LTLs” established at the Maud Booth Home, located on the site of the Boyle Heights home of Joseph M. Workman, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and the Forsythe Spanish Girls’ Home, also located in that eastside neighborhood.

With respect to legislative goals, Root recorded that a Temperance Workers’ Conference, held in December 1918, at the Temperance Temple’s auditorium, led to a near unanimous asent that the three primary goals for the WCTU-SC chapter would be seeking ratification of the constitutional amendment, electing legislators who supported Prohibition, and calling for a constitutional amendment “for a Bone-dry California.” There was also a “patriotic membership campaign” that included successful enrollment numbers in such areas as Elysian Heights, north of downtown Los Angeles, Glendale, Hermon and Tustin.

With regard to publications of many kinds, Root noted there were some 266,000 leaflets, flyers, cards, bulletins, Christmas greeting cards, questionnaires, circulars and more. Because the Temperance Temple also housed the state office, she gave statistics on letters and communications, packages, literature and other material sent out. Guests from fifteen states and two Canadian provinces were also welcomed at headquarters.

The secretary also recorded anecdotes such as help “to an unfortunate [though what exactly was discreetly omitted] young woman,” assistance rendered to a young soldier to keep him from jail, a county official who was “strongly tempted” by drink but who was helped “to execute a legally drawn temperance pledge; and a place to stay and assistance in finding work for a miner who was “robbed and then chased out of Mexico by bandits.”

In the section on county reports, recording secretaries provided details on operations in their localities, so, for Los Angeles, Frances W. Davenport noted there were over sixty unions with just north of 2,700 members, who attended some 800 regular meetings and fifty public ones. The largest of the unions was, not surprisingly, Los Angeles, with 500 members, while Long Beach had over 200 and Whittier, 115. The central Los Angeles group and one in Pomona celebrated 35 years of operation, while another in the Angel City marked a quarter century anniversary.

Orange County had a dozen unions with over 500 members, with 144 regular meetings, 17 public ones, and, in the Tent City of Huntington Beach, the WCTU kept a “Palm Cottage” for those, especially the elderly, staying there for meetings “to read, write and rest.” In Riverside County, there were ten unions and some 350 active members, with Corona highlighted for attracting twenty-five new members during the prior year. Arlington and East Riverside, neighborhoods of that city, were reported as being involved in a National Constitutional Prohibition Day of Prayer, while Beaumont was praised for being “interested in Americanization and Hemet garnered attention for Red Cross sewing. At San Bernardino County, there were eight unions and 265 active members, with Redlands, San Bernardino and Upland cites for involvement in the national prayer day event and the county seat noted for closing over thirty places that served liquor as of 20 June 1917, ending “a wet regime which has extended over the entire time since the founding of the city.”

Elsewhere, under reports by the recording secretary, Hattie Corline Young, there was one on suffrage, with a resolution that some 5,000 voters affiliated with the WCTU-SC called upon the United States Senate “to pass at once the federal suffrage amendment, establishing at home that democracy for which the men of this country have been called to fight abroad.” At the end of her filing, Young noted that, in Edward Buler-Lytton’s famous 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, there was reference to marching Christians exultantly awaiting judgment day as Vesuvius rained its lava on the doomed Roman city and so she added,

in these awful and eventful days, in which the whole world is facing a supreme crisis, like the band of white robed Christians of Pompeii, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is marching triumphantly on to victory. And in the vision of the future we see a wonderful call to service, for, when the great cataclysm is over and everything has to be rebuilt, the world will be in sore need of mothering, and it will be worth a great deal to humanity that there is a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, who has specialized for many years in mothering.

Also given attention in the report was the section on “Patriotic War Service” and the War Service Committee, the main project of which was a “comfort bag” for soldiers, with fund drives and fundraisers held to get the money for the committee’s work. To date, $25,000 was gathered and it was expected the goal of $30,000 would soon be reached. Counties also determined projects for its jurisdiction, so Imperial worked on an ambulance fund; Los Angeles, Orange, Riviersde, San Bernardino, Ventura and Kern counties chose field kitchens; and others were handled by different counties and local communities.

There were also reports of the superintendents of various departments within the WCTU-SC and the “Americanization” section included the statement by Mrs. S.C.W. Bowen that “probably a mistake has been made in allowing millions of emigrants to settle in our communities and continue their hold habits of thought of life and language.” Typical as this sounds then, before and now when it comes to the thorny matter of “assimilation,” this view was followed by the claim that “the W.C.T.U. is prepared to lead in creating a community attitude of friendliness towards alien families.”

What was suggested were three goals for local groups within the regional organization, so that “each member of the local union place on her calling list at least one family of foreign-speaking people and, where possible, teach them to speak English;” to hold neighborbood meetings “where literature is to be in the native language on moral education and patriotism;” and community sings and outdoor meetings were to be held on national holidays. It was added that a teacher of foreign-born students asked her charges about the meaning of words of a patriotic song, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” relating to the American flag and its making “tyranny tremble” and a girls said she was born in America, but “mother was born by the Rhine [in Germany].”

Ella Whipple Marsh briefly discussed the work of the Anti-Narcotics department especially concerning such programs as “Anti-Cigarette Sunday” in Los Angeles city schools and elsewhere, including the distribution of books, leaflets and booklets and 3,000 pledge cards in those comfort bags to soldiers. In San Diego, “splendid work [was] done among the soldiers and sailors,” as well as in classrooms; and shorter descriptions of activities in Ventura, San Bernardino and San Luis Obispo was provided.

The Bible in the Public Schools department, stated Marguerite Burr, was crestfallen that “this has been a very discouraging year . . . owing to the intense strain of the war service and the indifference of the public on all subjects not vitally connected wiht the war.” Yet, for the Christian Citizenship section, “these are indeed strenuous days and testing times” but, it went on, “we believe that this great war cloud will have its silver or perhaps its gold lining.” In other words, it was also challenging for this group to get its work done because of the focus on the conflict. So, while there was some reporting of work undertaken, Etta Burnham Taft concluded, “God has given us great victories. Let us rish on the work, that the Christian Citizenship movement shall, with added momentum, dominate our great and glorious America.”

Another interesting little tidbit was provided by Louisa S. Janvier of the Unfermented Wine at the Sacrament section, who stated that, while communion was there for “forgiveness, comfort and help” so that sinner is pardoned, it was “certainly an error of judgment” to have fermented wine “which has been a temptation” and “a departure from safe leadership.” Janvier concluded her brief report by proclaiming, “God’s church may do well to study the effect of fermented wine at its altar.”

There was also a Non-Alcoholic Flavors and Perfumes department, which actively promoted the “Original Non-Alcoholic Flavors” and Ella C. Howard offered that “our reports show that only about two barrels of alcohol was saved in Southern California by the use” of this product in 1917. If each WCTU union bought and used or sold three dozen such tubes, the profit could be used for comfort bags. Howard exhorted readers that “we are banded together to strike a blow at King Alcohol at every opportunity” adding that hers was the only section “in which we are absolutely certain that we are preventing the use of alcohol in the homes.” She ended with “now is the Day of Prohibition. This is the Accepted Day of the Lord. God is on His throne keeping watch over his own.”

Mary E. Garbutt of the Peace and Arbitration section also invoked prayer as a means for achieving goals in this area, averring that “our organization has seen the march of temperance ideas, until the ultimate victory in the overthrow of the liquor traffic is at hand.” It was high time that “with open minds, free from all prejudice, let us try to understand the causes of war, and how to replace them by causes that will make for peace.” Education for an end to conflict could be achieved “as we have worked in the party for prohibition.” The goal of “a new world, a safe and happy dwelling place, for a free people” was “the message of the Peace Departent to you, my sisters,” Garbutt concluded.

The Prison Reform department’s L. Fannie King had reports only from Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, but statistics were provided on work done, including services held by its members or attended by them; distribution of religious literature, along with newspapers and magazines; letters and holiday cards written to prisoners; visits or assistance to families of convicts; meetings held and talks delivered for prison reform; and the small sum of not quite $70 raised for the department’s work, with all but a dollar spent. It was added workers also went to the Los Angeles county farm and hospital at Norwalk and there was a Thanksgiving dinner and fruit given out at Christmas. In San Bernardino County, cake, fruit and jellies were served to prisoners at the Yuletide season, while both jurisdictions also brought flowers to the jailed.

The Purity in Literature and Art section’s Alice P. Woertendyke sent in a brief report that it worked to fight against printed materials “which picture the use of alcoholic drinks and tobacco in such a way as to commend their use.” She added that there were protests to Los Angeles newpapers and the mayor and city council “against the exhibition of the mude and immoral and art,” while she claimed that the section’s work “has created a keener sense of what should come to the eye of the public and what should be excluded.” Only Los Angeles County had its superintendent in the ever-vigilant Woertendyke.

Helen M. Stoddard of the Scientific Temperance Instruction also rose to rhetorical heights as she used a military analogy about making sure “the victors are INTRENCHED [sic] and the victory is SECURED” in the war against alcohol. She added that, whatever territory was seized against the enemy,

Only one solution will give lasting permanence to the victories, increased work in the schools and in public press, and scientific truth shall once more establish the doctrine, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” “Dig in!”

With the added context and environment of the particularly potent presentation of patriotism, this published proceedings of the WCTU-SC for 1918-1919 is especially interesting and illuminating.

National prohbition was shortly after secured and the membership of the organization could certainly feel vindicated—if for a while. After fourteen years, Prohibition, so much honored in the breach, was repealed, but the WCTU continued and continues today to promote its ideals, while the Southern California chapter also remains in operation.

Leave a Reply