Online Exhibits - Carry A. Nation, Part 2
The Famous and Original
Bar Room Smasher
"The men would not do it, [so] we women did it. . . . This conduct from us women means something."
--Catherine A. Hoffman, quoted in Kansas City Star, January 29, 1901
In 1881 Kansas outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The law, however, was generally ignored. During the next 20 years, many Kansans who witnessed alcohol's devastating effects fought to get the laws enforced.
The prohibition movement appealed to many women because it allowed them a means to act at a time when they could not vote. Bribery, fraud, and drunkenness at the polls were all reasons 19th century politicians gave for denying women the vote. It was argued that the political process would corrupt these feminine guardians of family and home.
On the other hand, reformers believed woman's moral superiority would purify politics rather than degrade women. Prohibitionists adopted this argument after seeing many families destroyed by a father's alcoholism. This is one reason Carry Nation called her supporters "Home Defenders." She sold buttons printed with this phrase to promote her cause.
"See, I have this day set thee over the nation and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant," Jeremiah 1:10
--Marked in Carry Nation's Bible with the notation, "Smashing"
Like many women reformers, Carry Nation believed she was doing God's will by acting against saloons.
While it was illegal for alcoholic beverages to be manufactured and served in Kansas in her time, the laws were unevenly enforced. There was a growing frustration over the inability or unwillingness of Kansas authorities to enforce the prohibition laws. In early 1900 Nation worked within the law to close saloons (also known as joints) in Medicine Lodge. But a few months later she was inspired to take a more violent approach, using a tactic employed by earlier reformers. She later described the scene in her autobiography, The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation (1908):
On the 5th of June, before retiring, I threw myself face downward at the foot of my bed in my home in Medicine Lodge. I poured out my grief in agony to God, in about this strain: "Oh Lord you see the treason in Kansas, they are going to break the mothers' hearts, they are going to send the boys to drunkards' graves and a drunkard's hell. I have exhausted my means, Oh Lord, you have plenty of ways. You have used the base things and the weak things, use me to save Kansas. I have but one life to give you, if I had a thousand, I would give them all, please show me something to do." The next morning I was awakened by a voice which seemed to me speaking in my heart, these words, "GO TO KIOWA," and my hands were lifted and thrown down and the words, "I'LL STAND BY YOU." The words, "Go to Kiowa," were spoken in a murmuring, musical tone, low and soft, but "I'll stand by you," was very clear, positive and emphatic. I was impressed with a great inspiration, the interpretation was very plain, it was this: "Take something in your hands, and throw at these places in Kiowa and smash them."
"A woman is stripped of everything by them [saloons]. Her husband is torn from her; she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food, and her virtue...Truly does the saloon make a woman bare of all things!"
--Carry A. Nation
Saloons were often among the first businesses in frontier towns. A common sight in many communities, they provided jobs and a place for social interaction. These joints also were dens for gambling, prostitution, and other illegal activities. For this reason they were targeted by reformers. Kansas' earliest recorded saloon-smashing was in Lawrence in 1855.
Saloon owners and authorities often responded quickly and harshely to Nation's destruction of property. Despite the reformer's firm, righteous stance about alcohol, she could be very charming. Read a story about Nation confronting jointists barricaded inside a saloon in Boys, Boys, Come and Let Me In.
Carry A. Nation is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.
- How Well Do You Know Carry Nation? - Fun quiz.
- Hatchetations and Home Defenders - Why reformers smashed saloons.
- Paying the Bills - Selling hatchet pins, buttons, and newsletters.
- Taking on the Role of Crusader - Personal tragedies in Nation's life.
- Other Crusades - Women's health, woman suffrage, and anti-smoking.
- An International Figure - People all over the world followed Nation's work.
- She Hath Done What She Could - Final days in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
- An American Icon - Carry Nation is a household name today.
- Temperance Timeline - Timeline of alcohol reform.
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org