Temperance War, Part 1

In May 1874, May Dummer wrote to her brother, Frank, that Jacksonville women were embroiled in a “Temperance War.” This week and next we’ll explore that war and its rhetoric, beginning with women’s scientific temperance education. While at the Watkinson Library in Hartford, CT, I focused on the Henry Barnard Textbook Collection to better understand the JFA curriculum. From the catalogs, it appears that the women had fairly advanced studies in literature, languages, and science. The textbooks told a different story. 

Women’s identities are largely shaped by their understandings of their physical bodies. For this reason, I was especially interested in the physiology and biology textbooks teachers at the JFA adopted and found that they learned very little about how their female bodies worked. As I worked my way through the nineteenth century, this was further complicated by the emergence of a new curricular framework: temperance.

Beginning in the early 1870s, students at the JFA read Dr. Joel Dorman Steele’s Hygienic Physiology, a general physiology book that covered most of the major human biological systems (sans reproduction and defecation) that was part of a larger series including volumes on chemistry, astronomy, physics, geology, zoology, and botany, as well as a “Special Reference to Alcoholic Drinks and Narcotics.” Steele encouraged women to conduct scientific inquiry in laboratory settings, using every day household items such as bones and eggs, but he also suggested they obtain and use microscopes. For example, in learning about muscles, Steele outlined the following lab experiment:

“1. Wash out the red color from a piece of lean beef. You can easily detect the fine fibers of which the meat is composed. In boiling corned beed, the fibers often separate, owing to the dissolving of the delicate tissue which bound them together. 2. Place a fiber under a microscope. You will find it made of of minute filaments (fibrils), each fibril composed of a row a tiny cells arranged like a string of beads” (26).

The textbook brings in early notions of germ theory, as Steele describes the hazardous working working conditions in school rooms – certainly providing food for thought to the aspiring teachers at the JFA. But if you read closely, you’ll find that Steele is less concerned with actual science and more with maintaining social, economic, and gendered boundaries in tact. The book reads:

“Who, on going from the open air of a clear, bracing winter’s day, into a crowded school-room, late in the session, has not noticed the disagreeable odor, and been for a moment nauseated and half-stifled by the oppressive atmosphere? … Some of the children come from homes that are close, ill-ventilated, and uncleanly; some from sickrooms, whence they bring in their clothing the germs of disease; and some may themselves bear traces of illness, or have unsound organs, and so their breath and exhalations be poisonous… The usual school-room atmosphere bears the natural fruit of frequent headaches, inattention, weariness, and stupor” (60-61).

In keeping with physiology books for women, Steele entirely avoids topics related to reproduction and digestive elimination, but brings to the fore the unnatural nature of corsets, the importance of correct posture, the wisdom of well-fitted shoes, and of course, the evils of alcohol. Every chapter devoted to a different bodily system also included a section on how alcohol affected (read: degraded) that system. Steele was surprisingly open and honest about the manufacture of alcohol, including detailed information about various types of beers, spirits, and liquors and even illustrations of stills:



Why the details? Why teach young ladies the science of brewing and distilling? The JFA was one again part of a much broader national effort to change the tone of the temperance movement. In 1873, Boston teacher Mary Hannah Hunt persuaded her school board to adopt a temperance education curriculum and shortly thereafter, began working through the newly founded Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to push for state legislation requiring all schools to teach about the dangers of drink.

Hunt believed temperance activists needed to move away from emotional appeals and harness the power of scientific inquiry. In A History of the First Decade of of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (Boston: Washington Press, 1892), Hunt describes her lobbying efforts as:  

“…the result of a careful study of the underlying principles of our government and the methods of changing or adding to our laws. Realizing that no flights of oratory no general and aimless agitation could accomplish the giant task of engrafting a new study upon the school system of a country, I appreciated the saying of Abraham Lincoln that “whoever would change a law of this Republic can do it by first changing the convictions of the people” and realized that success here must be an organized victory” (9).

Her strategy was to sell temperance education within the larger subjects of health, physiology, and hygiene. In doing so, her Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction within the WCTU appealed to politicians who might hesitate to regulate alcohol, but who were certainly earnest to teach children about bathing and germs. She also marketed the concepts to textbook publishers who were eager to corner particular markets. Hunt claimed she worked closely with Steele, who penned an entire series of textbooks on various subjects, to continuously develop this curriculum.

Though she worked for nearly a decade before Vermont became the first state to enact such a law in 1882, the publication of Steele’s book in 1872 allowed school boards to take up the cause on their own. Illinois did not adopt a temperance education law until 1897, but Steele was introduced into the curriculum as early as 1874, the same year as the so-called “Temperance War” in Jacksonville (one caveat here: I looked at the 1884 edition of Steele, so I’m not sure at what point he added the temperance material. Earlier editions from the 1870s are not available on Google Books. There is some evidence to suggest Steele did not emphasize temperance as much in his earlier editions). By 1900, Hunt had succeeded in her goal, as most states required instruction on the dangers of alcohol. Her insistence on absolute abstinence, as well as Steel’s assertion that any amount of alcohol was a “poison,” drew criticism from a variety of circles, but as we’ll see  next week, the introduction of Steel’s textbook into the JFA curriculum was no accident.



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