Teetotallers curb booze

The 1820s temperance movement lead to the prohibition era almost a century later. Police are shown here destroying whisky at Elk Lake, Ontario, 1925 during Ontario’s 1916 to 1917 prohibition era. Elk Lake, a silver mining boom town, housed 10,000 people in 1907; just 400 in 2016. Prohibition ruled in every province in 1917, but repealed in most provinces in 1920s. Prince Edward Island boasted the longest province-wide prohibition, from 1901 to 1948. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.


Booze 1829 — 1920

From my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Press, 2012.

Curbed by a holy war waged by temperance advocates and teetotalers, Canada’s nineteenth century booze pandemic peaked in the 1820 and 1830s. Hundreds of temperance societies sprang up within a few years. They were led mostly by Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and assorted Bible pounders, preaching salvation from the grip of life-destroying “ardent spirits.” Largely standing on the sidelines—and sometimes in opposition to the teetotallers—were the two establishment churches, the Church of England (Anglican) and the Catholic Church of Rome.

The temperance warriors claimed great victories. Beyond doubt, they did much good. But they never achieved anything like a complete or lasting cure. The social curse remained a problem throughout at least the nineteenth century.

It was a war that would last almost a century, progressing through three phases: temperance, voluntary abstinence of all forms of booze, and law-enforced prohibition.

At first, the temperance societies were temperate in name and in fact. These were “societies of the temperate,” advocating only “abstaining from the use of distilled spirits,” wrote the Rev. John Edgar, Belfast professor of divinity, in a lengthy lead article on “Principles and Objects of Temperance Societies,” in the first issue of Montreal’s Canada Temperance Advocate, May 1835. “The Christian,” claimed Rev. Edgar, “is not forbidden the use of wine” and “does not consider the use of wine to be sinful.” Temperance meant the temperate consumption of fermented alcohol.

Before long, however, most anti-booze organizations, except in Quebec, required the long pledge, total abstinence of all alcoholic beverages.

It was not without a fight that total abstinence prevailed. Women were champion advocators. “Lips that touch wine shall never touch mine,” chimed the most chaste maidens. Some might well have become old maids, since the available supply of eligible, teetotalling males was rather limited. It was one thing for a man to swear off whisky. Thousands did, and some even managed to stay on the wagon. But for many, the thought of also giving up beer, wine, and cider, was a bridge too far.


The Anglican Church stood with opponents of the despised and ridiculed “cold water army,” if for no other reason than their members were required to sip a little wine at communion service.

It was in the United States that the first temperance societies sprang up, in the early 1820s. The first two in Canada were organized in 1828, at Pictou, Nova Scotia, and in Montreal. Ross Duncan, Presbyterian minister and educator (he also farmed in order to feed his large family) founded the Pictou Society in January. Founders of the Montreal Temperance Society included Jacob De Witt, one of Lower Canada’s most successful businessmen and financiers, a long-serving member of the House of Assembly, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

By 1832, according to historian Craig Heron, Upper Canada claimed 100 temperance societies with more than 10,000 members; Nova Scotia claimed 30,000 members by 1837.

Buckingham, in Lower Canada, was an example of the remarkable success claimed by temperance societies, according to a report in the May, 1835 premier issue of the Canada Temperance Advocate. The Buckingham society had been organized less than three years earlier, “under circumstances affording but slight prospect of success,” the paper reported. Lumbering was the main industry, and employed some 150 men. Booze was “considered indispensably necessary to protect against the cold and heat, and afford strength for the performance of the severe labour required.” Despite this, the anti-booze preachers persuaded 120 men to take the pledge, and the lumbering firms stopped providing their workers with whisky. The result, it was said, was that lumbering had become much more productive without the former “riot, confusion and drunkenness.” Better yet, in the preceding year “no lives were lost, no limbs were broken, and no serious accident is known to have occurred.”

Despite the best efforts of the anti-boozers, teetotallers remained a minority and, although somewhat curbed, booze remained a nineteenth century problem, as evidenced by a few random reports.

  • 1845. Peterborough, with a population of 2,000, has no more than 150 temperance members but supports a brewery, three distilleries, and, with 20 licenced taverns, it had a ratio of one drinking place for every 100 men, women and children.
  • 1879. Winnipeg physicians claim that two-thirds of their male patients “suffer in some way or other from alcoholic poison,” the Winnipeg Tribune reports April 15.
  • 1890. Canadians spent $38 million for 22 million gallons of spirits, wine and beer, and almost $800 million in the 25 years following Confederation, the Toronto Farmer’s Sun reported, May 17, 1892. The 1890 consumption amounted to more than nine gallons per adult over age 19.
  • 1900. An advertisement in the Montreal Family Herald and Weekly Sun, October 3 tells wives how to avoid “the disgrace, suffering, misery, and privation” resulting from their “husband’s drinking habits.” The secret is to sneak a little of the advertised patent medicine into his food and coffee.
  • 1904. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald notes that among the members of the Royal North West Mounted Police, “there is still a good deal of drinking,” the Winnipeg Free Press reports, July 5.
  • 1919. Within about five years, prohibition has come and largely gone across Canada—except in Quebec, where prohibition lasted only a few months and prohibited only distilled liquor. The veterans are back from the Great War. Booze sales for the year included 4.8 million gallons of distilled liquor and 35 million gallons of beer—about eight gallons per adult, not counting wine or cider, according to Statistics Canada (Historical Statistics of Canada, second edition, 1983). The long-running U.S. prohibition followed immediately, on January 1, 1920. Production of Canadian whisky, and importation of Scotch, soared, to help slacken the thirst of dry Americans.

Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 024

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