Whining about wine, tallying teetotalers at New York City Temperance Society  

By: Emily Malcynsky

To research a book about booze, you have to imbibe the soberest of materials: Temperance Society archives. Often an object of derision for modern drinking enthusiasts, the Temperance Movement was one of the first organized, public and political manifestations of anti-alcohol sentiment, eventually leading to Prohibition in 1920. To better understand the movement’s evolving motives and mission, I asked to view the minute book of the New York City Temperance Society.

As the U.S.’s long-established economic and cultural hub, New York City serves as an excellent microcosm for examining the activities and impact of the national movement. The minutes of the New York City Temperance Society, which launched in the 1820s as an auxiliary of the state chapter, capture the speeches, meetings, and other activities of the society’s leaders from 1829 to 1849. The organization gained steam in the 1830s and 40s, spurred on by what its leaders referred to as rising rates of “pauperism and crimes” and an over-saturation of licensed liquor stores.

The Society’s minutes are preserved by the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts, located in the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building on 5th Avenue. Accessing the collection requires a written request at least 48 hours in advance and a current New York City Library card.

I’ve lived in New York City for nearly four years, but being handed a burnt orange, lion-emblazoned library card felt like a christening. Now, I’m an official New Yorker, free to roam and borrow from any library in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island – though I’m still unworthy in the eyes of my home borough, Queens, apparently.

The reading room itself is kept locked at all times, though a soft knock on the door and a nod from the archivist is all it takes to gain entry. To receive the documents, however, you also need to assure the archivists that you have no pens illicitly stashed in your pockets, lest you mar the documents.

The minutes themselves were overwhelming – hundreds of pages of swirling, fading scrawl. Deciphering the writing was difficult, though after scrutinizing several entries it was clear that the majority of weekly activities involved preaching at or planning to visit new communities, like the Freemasons or the “African Church.”

At times, the level of detail was impressive. Expenses ($40 here, $57 there), membership tallies (88,000 in 1838), liquor store license counts (a 14 percent increase in seven years from 1831 to 1838!) – page after page of tracking the society’s efforts to rid the city of one of the “greatest evils with which our community is afflicted.” In an open letter to Mayor Isaac L. Varian that the Society published in 1840, it praised his reduction of liquor store licenses by 248 between 1839 and 1840. The society also pressed the mayor to ban liquor from the city’s Fourth of July celebration booth and ridiculed him for allowing the sale of liquor on Sundays.

But the entries were extremely formal, absent of any reflective tangents or snippets of conversation between the society’s leaders.

Still, I was able to glean some insights about the Society’s internal struggles to define its mission and wrangle support. Pasted into the minute book were what appear to be circular letters, addressed to a catch-all “Sir,” boasting of the many successes of the movement to date – including claims that the “Temperance [Society] has healed the sick, fed the poor, and clothed the naked.” The last paragraph of each letter beseeched the reader for donations. Without more detailed accounting records, however, it’s difficult to determine whether the society was struggling or simply trying to finance rapid expansion.

I was intrigued by a series of seven essays published in the New York Observer in 1840, titled “Remarks on the Wine Traffic,” in which the society’s corresponding secretary and general agent, Robert M. Hartley, pontificated on the evils of wine consumption. Up until that point, the temperance movement hadn’t considered wine to be as villainous as distilled spirits, believing that it was sanctioned by the Bible and “served the purposes of alimentation and nutrition.” In the “Remarks” essays, however, Hartley argues that “drunkards who had been reformed from the use of spirits were lost by the use of fermented drinks.”

The essays suggest that the movement underwent a significant shift in the late 1830s and 1840s. No longer would they make allowances for any type of alcohol consumption, even those with religious roots. But what the minute book fails to detail is how the essays were received by the public and by society members. Did they alienate the society’s religious following? Did they lose any important leaders? Was there any internal debate before publishing the essays?  Perhaps I can track down Hartley’s personal papers to find out.

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