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Selling sobriety: How temperance reshaped culture in antebellum America

Graham Donald Warder, University of Massachusetts Amherst


“Selling Sobriety” explores the uneasy symbiosis between the antebellum temperance movement and a distinctly American commercial culture. Entrepreneurs used the reform to reshape and legitimize public amusements, especially among those influenced by evangelical Protestantism who thought of themselves as the moral middle. Morally suspect forms of entertainment became the media through which temperance morality was inculcated. The dissertation examines three forms of commercial entertainments—temperance fiction, temperance speaking, and temperance theater. “Selling Sobriety” uses George B. Cheever's 1835 story, “Inquire at Amos Giles' Distillery,” to establish the sources of temperance imagery and the limits to clerical cultural authority. Cheever's story was part of a split between orthodoxy and Unitarianism in Salem, Massachusetts. The minister was tried for libel and gained the support of Justin Edwards, a founder of the American Temperance Society, and William Lloyd Garrison. The career of John Gough suggests the theatricalization of temperance and the popularity of the temperance narrative. The reformed drunkard Gough gained notoriety by relating his past at Washingtonian experience meetings, beginning in Worcester, Massachusetts. Wrenched by both the Market Revolution and delirium tremens, Gough was promoted by John Marsh of the American Temperance Union. In 1845, the National Police Gazette discovered an intoxicated Gough in a house of prostitution. William H. Smith's temperance melodrama, The Drunkard, opened in 1844 at Moses Kimball's Boston Museum. The play defused the antitheatricalism of many Americans and was also presented in P. T. Barnum's dime museum. It appealed to middle-class women who had hitherto avoided theaters. T. S. Arthur's career points to the links between temperance and a rapidly changing publishing industry. A fixture of domestic literature and Sarah Josepha Hale's Godey's Lady's Book, Arthur published the bestselling Ten Nights in a Bar-room in 1854. Arthur's novel sets up a Manichaean battle between Demon Rum and domesticity, between the bottle and the book. Alcohol was one means by which Americans formulated evil during a time of economic and theological optimism. “Selling Sobriety”argues that antebellum temperance was popular culture. Entrepreneurs used the reform as a wedge to open up new public spaces in American cultural life.

Subject Area

American history

Recommended Citation

Warder, Graham Donald, "Selling sobriety: How temperance reshaped culture in antebellum America" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9960803.