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Pic(s) of the Week: Prohibition Songbooks

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Martha Washington Temperance Songster. Published in New York by Nafis & Cornish, 18--. Music Division, Library of Congress.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new documentary, “Prohibition,” aired this week on PBS and I’m sure that many of you have seen it already (if you haven’t caught it on TV yet, you can watch it online here!). In the film, Burns and Novick explore the rise and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the result of strong temperance movements in the United States. As always, our collections offer a unique look at this era in American history and today I bring you not one, but two pics of temperance songbooks from the stacks!

The Martha Washington Temperance Songster is a small collection of lyrics to temperance songs (when I say “small,” I really mean “small” – the booklet is only about 3’’ X 4’’!). Multiple Martha Washington Temperance Societies sprang up in the mid-19th century and these and other women’s groups played a major role in fighting to protect family life by supporting sobriety – the songster presents the very words they came together to sing.

Songs of Might to Cheer the Fight Against the Blight of Liquordom. Fillmore Music House, 1912. Music Division, Library of Congress.


A later publication carries with it, in my personal opinion, the best title in our collection of temperance music: Songs of Might to Cheer the Fight Against the Blight of Liquordom. Ohio music publishers Charles M. and J.H. Fillmore printed the collection of temperance songs and lyrics in 1912, featuring titles such as “Tell Mother I’ll Vote Dry,” “The Rummies Are Up Against It,” and “The Whiskey Shops Must Go.” The collection also includes a passionate preface that offers a personal commentary on how alcohol has plagued society from the Fillmore Brothers themselves. The preface begins:

The greatest curse of the ages has been the beverage liquor traffic. It has wrecked millions of homes. It has been the ruin of many nations. We must destroy it, or it will destroy us…The end is near at hand. Never was the army of sobriety so hopeful of victory as it is now.

It took the Prohibition Party seven more years of campaigning before the Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1919. Despite high hopes, the period of Prohibition proved to offer more problems than solutions. The economy was hit hard by the loss of jobs in the entertainment industry and alcohol distilleries and breweries, crime rose dramatically, and the poor quality of alcohol produced on the black market posed public health risks. By the time of the Great Depression, the Prohibition repeal movement was in full effect and the repeal of Prohibition was made official with the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment in December of 1933.

Our collection of temperance songsters and sheet music document the efforts of later 19th and early 20th-century American societies and publishers dedicated to eradicating alcoholism after years of feeling the societal effects of excessive consumption. The books described above offer only a small peek into the plethora of music materials we hold from America’s Prohibition period!

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