Transcript: American Spirits – Carry Nation [VIDEO]

Leslie Przybylek, senior curator, Heinz History Center:

There aren’t a lot of American temperance leaders who we remember today, but if there’s one person that many Americans do kind of still know about it’s this woman: Carry Nation.

She was renowned as the saloon crusader who would take a hatchet, or an ax, or a baseball bat, or a 2×4 and smash saloons. It was her way of challenging the alcohol culture of the time and kind of encouraging what later happens with Prohibition. Carry did not start out to do this, but a really bad experience with her first husband who was an alcoholic made her a lifelong hater of alcohol and really a huge proponent of the temperance movement.

And she really started with more modest efforts. She, in Kansas, started a local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She prayed at saloons, she sang hymns – these were the standard things that temperance advocates did at the time, but Carry was unsatisfied at the progress that these kind of actions were making and so in 1900 she set about to become a little bit more proactive in her efforts and that’s when she took up her strategy with the hatchet. And what started in Kansas then expanded across the country. She in fact would fund her travels to different places by selling these miniature gold hatchet pins, and she became famous across the country as the saloon crusader who busted up saloons.

And we in fact know that she was here in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania on multiple occasions. She came to McKeesport, she was in Armstrong County and Greene County, and we know she was in Pittsburgh at least eight times. Sometimes it was quick. She would stop here on her way to somewhere else. Some meetings she might not have even gotten any notice on. We know that she would, for example, come to a WCTU meeting or talk at a church and often times newspaper coverage of her visits here would say, “oh Carry Nation made an unexpected visit to Pittsburgh,” but in many cases her visit was not only noticed but she made headlines and sometimes got arrested.

Carry was very provocative in her temperance beliefs. She made it a point to go into local saloons wherever she was visiting. She would try to get the bartender to serve her and then she would harangue them and start her actions so what happens is that eventually, not unsurprisingly, people tried not to serve her and in fact the police tried to find out when she was coming and intercept her and arrest her and put her in jail until for example the train to Buffalo comes and they can send her on her way with no event happening here in Pittsburgh.

Carry Nation’s last trip to Pittsburgh was probably in 1908. She was here multiple times in 1908, but she really semi-retired in 1909. She died in 1911, and even though she died before Prohibition went into effect, she really is one of those temperance leaders who brought greater notoriety to the cause and really brought it in front of the American public.