Wine connoisseur Benjamin Franklin once said, “If God had intended man to drink water, He would not have made him with an elbow capable of raising a wine glass.” But for typical Americans of his era, drinking alcohol was more than a mere exercise of the joint between the humerus and ulna: it was becoming a national crisis. By the time of Franklin’s death in 1790, the annual consumption of distilled spirits by persons 15 and older was five gallons. By 1830, when solo and communal bingeing were common occurrences, it had exceeded nine gallons. Social and economic anxieties, cheap and plentiful rum, and the low-class, bland-tasting, and often polluted status of water were cited as reasons for Americans’ heavy consumption of alcohol. Whatever the causes, it led 19th century observers to conclude that the United States had become a nation of drunkards.
Long before the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, mostly male groups such as the American Temperance Society, Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society, and Sons of Temperance had formed great armies of sober men to do battle with Demon Rum. All enthusiastically promoted the idea of cold water as a substitute for alcohol.
Most New Hampshire towns had a temperance movement. In Hampton, Rev. Josiah Webster spearheaded the anti-liquor crusade, scoring a temporary victory in 1830 when voters instructed the selectmen to stop issuing licenses for the sale of spirituous liquors. That vote was reversed the following month, but in 1833 selling liquor was again prohibited.
The temperance convention was the most popular method of delivering the anti-alcohol message to the masses. Like one big, catered camp meeting, it was a day long festival of marching, music, and speechifying by reformed drunkards. One of the first conventions in Hampton was held in 1841, for the purpose of organizing a Rockingham County chapter of the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society, an early form of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose motto was “The Cold Water Army, conquering by love, the best mode of warfare.” The proprietor of the Railroad House carried the day to a roaring success by putting his stock of spirits “into the hands of the Washingtonians, who amused themselves by pouring them on the ground.” The most notable and well-attended conventions, however, were those held in 1844 and 1849.
1844 temperance convention
The local Washingtonians hosted Hampton’s first general temperance convention, held at Boar’s Head on July 4, 1844. The country’s birthday was favored by anti-alcohol forces of all stripes, because, they reasoned, by taking the “dry oath” on that day, participants would more strongly feel their abstinence as a virtuous act, akin to the Founding Fathers’ struggle for independence.
The day began with a march from Dearborn’s Inn at the center of Hampton to the beach, with Old Glory and the temperance banners unfurling in the breeze. The featured orator was future president Franklin Pierce, a man who struggled with hard drinking most of his life, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1869. A choir sang such refrains as “The teetotalers are coming, the teetotalers are coming, the teetotalers are coming, with the Cold Water Pledge. We will stop the course of stilling, alcoholic drink for killing, and all fermented swilling, with the Cold Water Pledge.” To the objections by some temperance advocates that, since rum was sold there, Boar’s Head was the wrong place for the event, the Exeter News-Letter commented, “if anybody took rum or brandy [that day], they did it very slyly.”
1849 temperance convention
Hampton’s second and largest temperance convention, held on July 4, 1849, was hosted by the local branch of the Sons of Temperance. Led by a uniformed, mounted marshal and the Newburyport Brass Band, a parade of children with banners and flags, clergymen, and the Sons marched from the Congregational Church to the convention site on the Thomas Ward estate, just south of the main village. The featured speaker was John Hawkins of Baltimore, a rehabilitated drunkard and early member of the Washingtonian Society. The warriors were out that day, eliciting pledges of alcohol abstinence from among the estimated 2,000 attendees.
The hole in the dike
Cold Water armies not only encouraged abstinence, they agitated for mandatory prohibition, and in 1855 the New Hampshire legislature enacted a ban on the production and sale of most kinds of distilled spirits. The prohibition lasted until 1903, when it was replaced by local option. As it had in the 1830s, Hampton vacillated between yes and no on the liquor question. New Hampshire had its share of flip-flopping problems, too, as pro- and anti-alcohol forces struggled for dominance in the state. In what would become the antis last big win, statewide prohibition was reinstated in 1918, two years ahead of national prohibition.
With the repeal of national prohibition in 1933, New Hampshire again allowed local option, but reserved the right to issue licenses to hotels in “dry towns” that wanted to serve liquor to their registered guests. Hampton voted to remain dry, and social pressure ensured that no hotel in town or at the beach would seek a liquor permit. That changed in 1957, when Lamie’s Tavern in Hampton Center sought and received a license. Worried residents feared that the license was the first “hole in the dike” that would eventually flood the beach with liquor. From some points of view, the dire prediction has come true. For others, water remains the wettest thing at Hampton Beach.
The free water custom
Humans have to drink something, and in the mind of temperance advocates, that “something” should be water. To lure drinkers away from liquor, they worked to make cold, clean water widely available, and in doing so created a tradition that is still with us today. So the next time a restaurant server presents you with a free glass of ice water, whether you’ve requested it or not, be aware that this faintly peculiar custom had its beginnings in the great temperance crusades of the 19th century.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, August 24, 2018.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com, Tuck Museum, and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at email@example.com or lassitergang.com.