The Fruits of Intemperance

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The Fruits of Intemperance


By: Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives

Date: 1870

Source: Corbis Corporation

About the Author: This image was first published in 1870 by the famous New York lithographers Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824–1895), the most famous lithographers in American history. Lithography, the first efficient method of mass producing color images, was discovered in 1798 and introduced to the United States in 1830. It is a form of printing in which a flat stone (lithos) or metal plate is specially treated to transfer ink to paper pressed against it. Currier and Ives became famous through the publication of hundreds of evocative landscapes and scenes of American life.


The manufacture and consumption of alcohol was a prominent feature of American society from its earliest colonial times. In an age when water was frequently unsafe to drink, the predominantly English colonists brought their affinity for beer to the New World, and the beverage was consumed by all ages and classes of persons.

Distilled spirits were a later addition to the colonies. Rum imported from the West Indies proved so popular that a distillery was established in Boston in 1700. With the arrival of settlers of Scotch and Irish descent, grain whiskeys were produced in homemade stills. Whiskey also had the advantage of being easier to store than beer.

Alcohol consumption in America increased in popularity after Independence; the period between 1790 and 1830 was the era of the heaviest drinking in American history. Alcohol was consumed at all hours of the day and in every setting. Modern studies suggest that the average adult per capita consumption of pure alcohol during this period was over 7 gallons (27 liters) per year; in 2005 average consumption was 2.3 gallons (8.5 liters). Alcohol was widely believed to be a healthy and stimulating beverage in any form.

The first significant opposition to the widespread consumption of alcohol was found in the publications of Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, who launched a series of pointed attacks on hard liquor consumption in 1792; as with other early temperance advocates, Rush favored beer and wine instead. The only religious opposition came from the Methodist and Quaker denominations.

The next significant challenge to the prevailing American attitude towards alcohol came as a result of the massive wave of German immigration that occurred between 1830 and 1860. Almost 900,000 Germans settled in the United States during this period, bringing with them their affinity for lager beer; names such as Coors, Schlitz, Budweiser, and Busch are a part of this brewing legacy today. The popularity of German brews served as a point of emphasis for the temperance (moderation in alcohol) proponents. The concept of temperance as alcohol in moderation slowly gave way to a movement advocating total abstinence.

Temperance moved from the margins of American society into a mainstream conflict with the founding of the American Temperance Society in 1826, which became an early leader in the ever-widening war. In the popular illustration Tree of Intemperance, published by A.D. Fillmore in 1855, the biblical images of the serpent, tree, and temptation are interwoven with the progressive growth of alcohol into an assortment of vices.

The Fruits of Intemperance is an illustration that is significant both as artwork and in its relationship to the temperance forces that were beginning to assert their influence over American society in 1870. It portrays an intemperate father, the putative head of the household, who has wholly failed his lost and defenseless family by leading them down a dark and barren roadway. This theme of failure and destitution is a recurring one in the temperance artwork of this period.



See primary source image.


The Fruits of Intemperance was produced not to advance the interests of the temperance movement, but because Currier and Ives had identified a market for works that appealed to temperance supporters. The image's publication is evidence that this market was significant, or Currier and Ives would not have printed it—in fact, they described themselves as publishers of popular images.

The most powerful arguments advanced by the temperance movement were those that attacked alcohol as a destroyer of the family unit, both in terms of relationships and the ability of a father to support his family. This argument was not built upon scientific studies or empirical evidence, but the immorality of alcohol and the resulting exposure of all family members to sinful behavior. In contrast, modern arguments against excessive alcohol consumption focus on the physiological effects; morality is seen as a private, not societal issue. Modern medicine defines alcoholism as a disease, which would not fit the 1870 temperance supporters' moral template.

The state of Maine first banned the sale of alcohol in 1851; by 1860 there were 12 "dry" states The progress of the temperance movements was slowed by the Civil War (1861–1865). By 1870, temperance forces were well established in every state of the Union, and the movement had abandoned the notion that moderate alcohol consumption was acceptable—alcohol was characterized as a poison in any amount. This was not built upon medical theories, just as there was no science to support alcohol's health benefits, as had been the accepted basis for its widespread consumption in the early 1800s.

The strength gained by the temperance movement across America by 1870 was not founded entirely upon the connection that it advanced between alcohol and sin. In many respects the temperance movement was beginning to be accepted by people who saw temperance as promising something entirely positive—a better, happier, and more productive society. Unlike the other important social causes of the era, including the extension of full citizenship rights to blacks, the agitation for women's rights, and the political battles that arose following the Civil War, temperance bred an optimistic outlook and it was accordingly a less bitter and divisive issue.

The social issues captured by The Fruits of Intemperance are those that would be advanced more aggressively in the years following 1874 with the formation of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU).



Frick, John. Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America 1800–1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

Lender, Mark Edward, and James Kirby Martin. Drinking in America: A History. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

Web sites

Wisconsin Historical Society. "Brewing and Prohibition." 〈Brewing and Prohibition.〉〉 (accessed Jun 19, 2006).