A Women's Temperance Society, History

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

The Washingtonian Society was the nation’s largest temperance organization for former drinkers who had taken a pledge of abstinence. There was also a counterpart organization for women, called Martha Washingtonians (after the first First Lady). These women endeavored to reach out to wives and mothers whose lives had been made destitute by their husbands’ drinking.

Transcription of Primary Source

The pioneers of Washingtonianism in New York are entitled to the credit of pointing out what was, in connection with the temperance cause, the appropriate work of woman to perform—a work, which is now viewed as the “better half” of this great moral enterprise…All the squalid poverty they had witnessed among the disconsolate and almost homeless wives, mothers and children, suggested to their minds, that the work our ladies’ societies now assign to their wardrobe committees, would give new vigor and life to HOPE, where hope was almost dead!…

The first ladies’ temperance society…was convened on the 12th of May, 1841, in…New York, where an organization was consummated, by adopting an appropriate constitution and subsequently, the following preamble: “Whereas, the use of all intoxicating drinks has caused, and is causing, incalculable evils to individuals and families, and has a tendency to prostrate all means adapted to the moral, social, and eternal happiness of the whole human family; we, the undersigned ladies of the city of New York, feeling ourselves especially called upon, not only to refrain from the use of all intoxicating drinks, but, by our influence and example, to induce others to do the same, do therefore form ourselves into an association.”

…To obtain funds, and increase their membership, were the first things that demanded attention; for it should not be overlooked that the object of the society was two−fold:— to prevent the ravages of intemperance among their own sex, and to render pecuniary aid to the reformed inebriates and their families. To accomplish both of these objects at the same time, it was required that, in becoming a constitutional member, they must not only sign the pledge, but pay a given sum on being received to membership, and a small amount on the first of each month thereafter, as long as they remained members of the society. This “initiation fee” and the monthly dues, together with the second−hand clothing which every member took upon herself to solicit, soon placed them in possession of means to furnish a wardrobe with all the variety of clothing that any subject of their commiseration should stand in need of…When the thrilling and soul−stirring appeals of experience−telling Washingtonians had brought many a man from the grave of inebriation to sign the pledge, yet now he had need to lay off his “filthy rags” for a “tetotal dress,” before he could seek employment with any hope of success. This could all be done from the wardrobe of the ladies’ society. How many, by receiving such aid, have been encouraged to successful effort…The real good that the society performed in restoring individuals and families to self−respect and usefulness, soon led the public to appreciate their labors…

Their alms are all designed to accomplish moral ends. Hence you will find their visiting committees going most frequently “two and two,” like the Apostles of old, looking into the dark corners of our towns and cities, into the damp cellars and open garrets, to find those whose poverty and suffering they can control, by pointing out to them a more excellent way of living, and encouraging them to walk in it, by offering them pecuniary aid….

As to Orphan Asylums…we have recently learned that, since the use of intoxicating drinks has diminished to such an unprecedented degree…children have been taken by scores from the Orphan Asylum…We believe that when the community are brought back to a state of sobriety and industry, there will not be found any more homeless and orphan children than would be gladly provided for, by the yearly demand for them in those families which are destitute of children by death or other causes.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Martha Washingtonians, Or A History Of The Ladies Temperance Benevolent Societies
8−12, 31−32, 34
Lorenzo D. Johnson
Saxton Miles
Place of Publication: 
New York
Old Sturbridge Village