Photo includes some of the WCTU women – Josephine Sweet, Etta Sherman and Lillian Borden

What is your image of people who were active in the temperance movement? Do you think of them as radicals like Carrie Nation swinging their axes around saloons?  As I read through vintage newspaper articles about the Portsmouth chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), I’ve formed quite a different image.  These women fought for their cause by organizing, petitioning the Town Council and General Assembly, praying, educating the young, reaching out to soldiers and sailors and working for Women’s Suffrage.  They were the “church ladies” like Lillian Borden and community leaders like Eunice Greene.

The Rhode Island chapter of the WCTU formed in 1875 just two years after the national chapter began.  Phebe Hathaway of Portsmouth was one of the state leaders.  By 1888 the organization had experienced great growth and great failure.  Every town in Rhode Island had a chapter.  In 1886 a statewide prohibition referendum had passed, but there was a vote for repeal in 1889.  In the 1890s the organization regrouped to work on a national prohibition.  The Portsmouth group honored National president, Frances E. Willard, who led the organization for 19 years (1879-1898).  Willard promoted other causes that impacted women such as suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and the eight hour work day.  Local newspaper articles reveal that the Portsmouth chapter would read Willard’s writings at meetings and celebrated her long after her death.

Once National Prohibition passed, the cause faded away in many areas, but the Portsmouth group kept meeting. Sarah Eddy, a noted artist and reformer, hosted a meeting in 1929 at her home on Bristol Ferry Road.  Fifty WCTU members gathered to hear National leaders from many states.  Rhode Island did not ratify the 18th Amendment for Prohibition and our coastland was a well known area for bootlegging.  Even with national Prohibition laws, the “evils of alcohol” still impacted local men and their families.

Vintage newspaper articles give us some clues to the activities of our local WCTU chapter.

  1.  Meetings were religious and ecumenical.  Hymns, devotions, and scripture readings were always part of the gathering.  All the local Protestant churches and ministers seemed to participate.  These included the Trouts of the Friends Church, Kathryn Cooper (Pastor of the Methodist Church), Pastors Macy and Loucks (Christian Church)  and Episcopal Rev. Dennis who held services in Portsmouth over the summer.  I have not seen any mention of the Catholic pastors.  The Temperance movement arose from Protestant revival roots urging that society be reformed.
  2. Activities were varied and there was a Supervisor for each of these areas.  Among these committees in 1914 were “Evangelistic Work”;  “Sunday School Work”;  “Literature”; “Work Among Foreigners” ; “Peace”; “Social Purity”; “Medical Temperance”; and “Scientific Temperance Instruction.”  This instruction involved going into the town classrooms to teach temperance to the school children.
  3. Do you want to be Efficient? pamphlet for military

    In other articles I found outreach to Soldiers and Sailors.  Special pamphlets aimed at young military recruits were included in “comfort bags” that were given out in a war relief effort.  One such booklet was called “Do You Want to be Efficient?”  You can read this pamphlet online from the collection of Brown University.  It typifies the “scientific” bent of the Temperance movement.  Men were urged to make choices based on the science and with all the facts rather than purely moralistic.

Eunice Chase Greene (1842-1921) was the President of the Portsmouth group for 40 years.  She was married to Dr. Benjamin Greene and she had a house at the foot of Quaker Hill.  For many years she was an Elder in the Friends Church.  In her younger days she taught music – both vocal and instrumental.

Lillian Collins Borden (1869-1933) became President of the Portsmouth WCTU when Eunice Greene became ill.  She was the wife of Alonzo Borden and the couple were very active in the Christian Union Church. This church (now the home of the Portsmouth Historical Society) hosted many temperance meetings throughout the years.   Lillian was active in the community and served on the Portsmouth School Board.