Nebraska Prohibits Alcohol
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The Temperance Movement in Lincoln

Temperance Cartoon
The White Man's Burden, "Preaching Prohibition by Postcards." Printed in The Literary Digest, April 8, 1908.

The temperance movement in Lincoln of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a good example of how prohibition affected towns and cities across the nation. Lincoln had active temperance groups who believed the saloon was an evil institution that undermined the traditional values of family, thrift, social order and community prosperity. But the city also had groups who regarded alcohol as a normal part of social life and saw nothing wrong with having a drink, now and then.

The Lincoln newspapers of the period took the position that democracy was threatened because the saloon patrons voted the way saloon owners instructed them to vote. They saw saloons and breweries dominating the local and state political scenes.

The conflict over prohibition produced divisions within the community — the city was divided over the prohibition issue into different ethnic groups, social classes, religions, and desire for political reform. It was not a homogeneous city when it came to regulating the sale of alcohol.

In 1902, the supporters of prohibition were able to get Lincoln city officials to pass a progressive excise tax for Lincoln saloons. The excise tax, also called a license fee, was gradually increased to $1,500 per saloon. Saloon's had to pay the tax in order to serve alcohol. The plan was to create high license fees that would reduce the total number of saloons. The law also limited the number of hours of operation by the saloons — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and limited where saloons could be built in Lincoln.

But high taxes and daylight operating hours was not the ultimate goal of prohibition forces, and the battle waged back and forth.

In 1909, the citizens of Lincoln were presented with three choices in the May 4 election.

  • Form A: a resolution for prohibition
  • Form B: a resolution for closing saloons at 6:30 p.m.
  • Form C: a resolution not to support either A or B
The prohibition resolution won with a bare majority of 51 percent.

Prohibition was back on the ballot in 1910, and the prohibitionists once again prevailed with a slim margin of victory.

It was back again in 1911, and this time, those in favor of alcohol — the "wets" — defeated the "drys." But, it was a hollow victory because there was a return to strict licensing which was geared toward the eventual elimination of the saloon.

A majority of the Lincoln residents seemed to be troubled by the saloon and what it symbolized but unsure how best to regulate alcohol. Proponents of both sides used every popular media of expression to help make advance their cause, including songs. This was a song from the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) set to the tune of "Yankee Doodle":

The Saloons' "Waterloo"
Tune: Yankee Doodle


Saloons have been by Lincoln tried . . .
And drinking has been easy.
And many of our men and boys
Occasionally are boozy.

    Chorus
Lincoln now is going dry
Yankee doodle dandy,
Saloons have met their "Waterloo"
Strong drink no more is handy.

We will no longer give consent
Our sons are far too precious,
We now unite saloons to rout
And ask the Lord to help us.

    Chorus

Let all now join the Civic League
And help to clean up Lincoln
And if we turn these leeches out
Some poor folks will have plenty.

    Chorus

Our buildings would soon fill again
And business go a humming,
When people spend their money right
And quit their foolish bumming.

    Chorus

    — By T. J. Merryman, from Nebraska's Favorite Temperance Rallying Songs
        (1908), compiled by Mrs. Frances B. Heald, Nebraska WCTU president.