Nebraska Prohibits Alcohol
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The Temperance Movement in Lincoln:
"Wets" vs. "Drys"

Prohibition Blues songsheet
Stereotypes abounded around the prohibition issue. "Prohibition Blues", 1917, by Al Sweet.
Courtesy Duke University and Library of Congress, Music B-920

Lincoln was divided by the prohibition question in "wets" vs. "drys".

The prohibitionists, the "drys", in Lincoln tended to reside in relatively affluent neighborhoods and were members of the city’s professional and local business elite. They were in the middle and upper socioeconomic classes and tended to be strong church members of Protestant denominations like the Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and Christian.

Ethnicity also played a major role in the prohibition movement. A distinction was made between the "new" and "old" immigrants. The loyal prohibitionist was likely to be native-born, that is, born in America. The early immigrant ancestors of these second- or third-generation Americans were viewed as strong-minded and moral people. The recent immigrants were more likely to be viewed as a threat to the values of sober middle-class citizens.

Ethnic stereotypes also were common. Germans, Czechs, Greeks Russians, and the Irish were viewed as the tools of the saloon and brewers’ interests. Saloons and foreigners went hand-in-hand in this stereotype. African Americans were also portrayed as drinkers.

The anti-prohibition forces, the "wets", were more likely to live in the less affluent areas of the community and represent the working class. Many belonged to the Catholic and Lutheran Churches and were of Russian and German backgrounds.

Bishop Thomas Bonacum
Thomas Bonacum, Roman Catholic Bishop of Lincoln.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2411-506

Thomas Bonacum, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lincoln, expressed the views of the Catholic Church on the issue of prohibition in a letter to Governor Ashton C. Shallenberger in 1909. He urged the governor to sign a bill that would limit the number of hours a saloon could sell alcohol to those hours of daylight. He also cautioned against any further legislation that might lead to prohibition. Bonacum viewed the daylight bill as an "eminently wise and salutary" measure that was "calculated to lessen the abuses of the liquor traffic." The Bishop said that the bill removed "the necessity for any future legislation which might be harmful to the best interest of our commonwealth." In other words, he favored some regulation, but not a total ban on alcohol.

While the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League represented the prohibitionists, the anti-prohibition forces also had organizations that defended their views. The Personal Liberty League enjoyed considerable influence and questioned the legality of any level of government interfering in the personal drinking habits of individual citizens. After all morality was the concern of the individual and the church, not public institutions like governments.

The temperance campaign committee responded:

"The public safety, the public health, and the public morals are the supreme concern of the government. The saloon, as everyone knows, endangers the public safety, destroys the public health, and corrupts the public morals. Therefore, the government that is true to itself must outlaw and inhibit the saloon."

The progressive leadership in Lincoln became a model for the prohibition forces throughout the state of Nebraska. Legislation that limited the hours saloons could sell alcohol would be passed on the state level, following the example set by the voters of Lincoln.

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