Teaching Sobriety With ‘The Bottle’

Before and after Prohibition, temperance organizations turned the whiskey or beer vessel into a personification of American moral failure.

A black-and-white photo of two 19th-century women sitting at a table with a bottle of whiskey and a cigar
Kirn Vintage Stock / Corbis / Getty

Somewhere in 1950s Georgia, a teacher brought a whiskey bottle and a Bible to her classroom. She stood in front of her elementary-school students and asked, “What do you think of that, do they belong together?” A firm “no” was the teacher’s eventual reply. She then moved the two objects farther apart, prompting a second question, “Now, that is all right, isn’t it?” Students, now implicitly understanding the lesson, were expected to respond with another resounding “no.” The teacher explained further, “Now, [they don’t] need to be close together or on the same table to be out of place. They don’t belong in the same life, the same home, the same community or same nation. Now which will you choose?”

This scene was gleaned from a lesson plan written by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU provided instructors around the country with step-by-step lessons like this one, teaching schoolchildren to eschew the consumption of alcohol and to recognize liquor as a symbol of American cultural decay, immorality, and political dissidence. This particular lesson, found in the Georgia WCTU records at Emory University, would have been distributed to teachers around Georgia—a state known for its strict, dry laws, and a stronghold of temperance advocates in the U.S. South through the early 20th century.

As the nation’s formerly dry stances on alcohol softened after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the whiskey bottle—held up so disdainfully by our Georgia teacher—became a powerful symbol and pedagogical tool for the staunchly anti-alcohol advocates of the temperance movement.

Though now a relatively obscure acronym, the WCTU had maintained significant political, social, and religious clout from the late 19th century through Prohibition. Largely comprised of white, Protestant evangelicals, members organized and agitated to abolish the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages and thereby played a crucial role in shaping early drug and alcohol policies. In fact, it was largely due to the advocacy of the WCTU and other temperance organizations that the Eighteenth Amendment was enacted in 1920. But by the mid-1920s, these voices for temperance began to fade from the public eye, and national attitudes toward alcohol consumption began to shift in favor of moderation. While pre-Prohibition Americans largely equated abstinence from alcohol with moral respectability, the onset of the Great Depression and the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment contributed to Americans seeing alcohol consumption as a normal social activity.

Lesson plans touting the evils of alcohol were a last-ditch attempt by temperance advocates to regain their stronghold on the American moral landscape after the repeal of Prohibition. Historically, the WCTU’s strategy of establishing a widespread temperance curriculum had proved extremely successful. Though Prohibition was legalized in 1920, the push for national prohibition laws started gaining steam in the 1880s, when the WCTU began to promote widespread temperance education in public schools. In 1880, the organization created the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction, which pushed for a mandatory school curriculum that used scientific data to teach students about the physiological consequences of consuming alcohol. In 1884, New York became one of the first states to adopt these educational policies, closely followed by Minnesota and Pennsylvania, in 1887. Georgia passed its own “scientific temperance instruction” bill in 1901; by that same year, nearly every state in the union (45 at the time) had similar laws. When the Eighteenth Amendment passed through the legislature in 1919, a generation of children had already been educated to thwart the ills of alcohol. It was a modern rendition of this campaign that the WCTU hoped to reignite after Prohibition’s repeal.

In the 1940s, those temperance advocates who had receded out of the limelight during Prohibition returned to the public sphere with renewed vigor. The fight for complete prohibition had never been an easy one. But unlike its 19th-century forebears, who emphasized the physiological effects of drinking on the mind and body, the mid-20th-century WCTU muddled abstinence from drink with notions of morality, Christianity, and what it meant to be a good American citizen.

One classroom handout intended for younger students tells a fictionalized story of a young Benjamin Franklin. While working as a printer, Franklin is appalled by “the great guzzlers of beer” with whom he worked. Dismayed by their behavior, Franklin pledges total abstinence: Temperance puts “credit in the country ... and spirit in the whole constitution.” The tale is a total fabrication; though not a big drinker, Franklin was known to imbibe occasionally. Moreover, the temperance movement in the United States began decades after his death. Regardless of the story’s veracity, the WCTU relied heavily on enlivened sentiments of patriotism in the postwar era, attempting to conflate love of country with hate of drink.

Though its political and social capital had all but diminished, the WCTU continued to push for temperance education through the 1960s. Many public officials still endorsed temperance policies, despite up to two-thirds of the public leaning in favor of moderate alcohol consumption. In an undated letter to the teachers of Georgia, Mary Scott Russell, the president of the Georgia Woman’s Christian Temperance Union during the 1930s and ’40s, wrote that these plans had been “heartily endorsed by the heads of the Atlanta School System.” With the blessing of the school board and with a plethora of material provided by the National WCTU, the Georgia chapter of the WCTU distributed lesson plans, skits and plays, and other pedagogical ephemera throughout the state and into the Georgia public school system. They organized school-wide events such as Temperance Day, Frances E. Willard Day (in honor of the woman who founded the WCTU in 1873), and youth abstinence training camps. A significant amount of pedagogical material the organization generated was aimed at elementary-aged children. These materials include card-sized handouts of modified nursery rhymes, often bizarrely contorting well-known children’s poems to fit into their overall message of abstinence from alcohol. Take, for example, this riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb”:

Mary and her little lamb live on a great big farm.

Mary loves her little lamb and keeps it safe from harm.

It follows her to school, but it waits out on the grass.

There really isn’t anything a lamb could do in class!

But Mary studies earnestly each day she is in school.

Good citizens must be informed! She knows that’s the rule.

She’s learning what to eat and drink to keep her well and fit.

She learns, too, what she must not drink—and alcohol is it!

In other pedagogical materials found in the archive, the whiskey bottle played a prominent role in symbolizing the alleged decline of American culture. The WCTU emblazoned the image of the bottle in their teaching material and cartoons, scribbled crude doodles of glassware in the margins of teaching notes, and typed up horrifying stories about children who dared to drink from the bottle only to encounter death and misery. As a character, whiskey even makes an appearance in Any Boy, a 1953 educational film created by the WCTU. In the film, Mr. Whiskey—played by an adult male actor—attempts to entice an unsuspecting young man into a life of drinking, which he fortunately eludes.

The whiskey bottle was often interchanged with the beer bottle, or simply “the bottle.” In “Mr. Beer Bottle Takes a Walk,” an educational tale, an animate beer bottle tries to find someone with whom to drink (or to drink him). During his excursion, he encounters Squeaky Pig and Mr. Fat Man, who respectively tell him that they “would rather drink swill from my own trough” and that he “ruined my good name, made me a poor man, caused my dear wife to hate me, and made my little children go hungry.” Says Mr. Fat Man, “Go away, Mr. Beer Bottle, I never want to see you again.” Mr. Beer Bottle sulks off.

For the WCTU, the “bottle” was so pervasive a symbol of alcohol and misery that the organization attempted to transform its connotation as such for students altogether. This attempt is not without irony, however, since the WCTU helped perpetuate the symbol in the first place. The end of “Mr. Beer Bottle Takes a Walk” morphs into a tale of redemption. Moved by the rejection of former friends, Mr. Beer Bottle decides to empty himself of alcohol and fill up with something else—but as to what that liquid will be, the story is tantalizingly vague. Another piece of classroom material found in the archive is “God’s Bottles,” a two-sided card featuring apples and grapes as a natural kind of bottle. The handout strives to undermine, if not erase, the symbolism of “the bottle” altogether. “Grapes Are God’s Bottles” reads:

These purple and green bottles you will find hanging on a pretty vine. See! Many little bottles are on a single stem! Put a grape in your mouth and open God’s bottle. How nice the juice tastes! Some men take the juice of apples and of grapes and make drinks that will harm our bodies. They put those drinks into glass bottles, but we will not drink from those bottles. We will DRINK FROM GOD’S BOTTLES.

Strains of these lessons have found their way into contemporary attitudes toward alcohol, but they manifest particularly in programs like DARE, which teach elementary- and middle-school children to abhor the moral travesties of alcohol consumption.

But why the symbol of “the bottle”? The liquor bottle was a convenient object onto which these proponents of temperance could project their aspirations for a dry nation, or at least a dryer one; it also embodied the ills of a country that temperance advocates believed was drinking itself into decline. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union successfully lobbied to teach children how the bottle—containing whiskey, beer, or any alcoholic substance meant for consumption—encompassed these societal ills of American culture at large.