Early Temperance Activity in Iowa

"Prohibition would prove to be the most emotional, politically significant, and tenacious of all issues in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Iowa."

—Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land (1996)

Temperance is defined as moderation in drinking alcoholic liquors or total abstinence. The term “temperance” was used in the 19th century and “prohibition” in the 20th century. Iowans have a long history of temperance activity. And Iowans started early, beginning with restrictive laws in 1847, a year after statehood. 

Iowa Passes Prohibition Laws

Iowa's General Assembly prohibited "dram shops" (what we would now call bars) in 1851. It passed a strong prohibition law in 1855. Much of this activity was from a political party called the Whigs. 

Legislators successfully added an amendment to the state constitution in 1882, making the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal within the state. This made Iowa a “dry state.” A dry state meant that it was against the law to sell or drink any type of alcohol within the state's borders. The Supreme Court quickly declared the amendment unconstitutional the following year. 

Another very strict prohibition law passed the Iowa legislature the next year. It remained in effect until a local option or "mulct law" came into effect in 1893. Local option meant that each county's residents could decide their own liquor laws. 

Then in 1916 a very strong statewide prohibition law passed in Iowa right before the beginning of the World War I. The state of Iowa had endorsed prohibition three years before the United States Congress passed the 18th Amendment outlawing alcohol in 1919.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union

The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) organized in Iowa on November 1874, the same month as the national organization organized. This was a strong group of women devoted to the cause—their cause was to make liquor illegal. Iowa’s WCTU continued with strong membership into the 1930s. The Union described its methods as evangelistic, educational, preventative, social and legal as it promoted abstinence of all alcohol. The group’s "watchwords" were agitate, educate and organize. 

The Women's Christian Temperance Union also believed in love, loyalty and light. Their dues were a $1 a year. Members wore a badge of knotted white ribbon as a sign of membership. By 1930 Iowa had 60,000 women listed as paid union members. One of their arguments against drinking was the rising numbers of deaths caused by drunk drivers. The official WCTU magazine was The Iowa Champion. Its motto ended with the phrase, "The Eighteenth Amendment forever!"

Iowa Prohibitionists

Other groups in Iowa included a new political party called the Prohibition Party which organized in the 1870s. The party nominated John Brown Hammond for governor in November 1932. Although women couldn’t vote until 1920, many of the WCTU members and other strong temperance believers supported dry candidates from the Republican Party in political campaigns.

These Iowa Republicans had passed one of the toughest Prohibition laws in 1884. Other clubs that supported the outlawing of alcohol were the Sons of Temperance and the Order of Good Templars. Many Methodists formed the Iowa State Temperance Alliance. Baptists were also very strongly committed to the cause. By the end of the 19th century, a Temperance Alliance existed in almost every Iowa county.

Religion could be one factor of the split between the drys and the wets. Many Protestant groups such as the Methodists, Baptists and some Lutherans were dry. Many Catholic churches and German Lutherans were wet, especially those with large immigrant populations from Germany and Italy where drinking beer and wine was popular, sometimes even among children. 

Another factor that determined “wetness” or “dryness” was political party affiliation. Most Republicans considered themselves dry, and many Democrats were wet. Age, gender and region played a role. Older people were more likely to be dry. Women were more likely to be dry. And rural people were sometimes more likely to be dry.

Levels of Temperance

Three different levels of temperance beliefs existed. Pietistic drys were very strongly against drinking any type of alcohol ever. They viewed liquor as a moral issue and deeply believed it was sinful to drink. 

Wets had limits and did not automatically believe drinking was okay. They often wanted some type of regulation such as where saloons were located and how late they could be open. Wets also wanted to tax liquor establishments. They saw this as a positive source of state income. And they certainly wanted to reduce crime. Many wets believed that if liquor were made illegal, then criminals and bootleggers would make great amounts of money that could not be taxed. And many wets believed outlawing alcohol would lead to an increase in violent crime. Many people in Iowa and the rest of the United States considered themselves moderates. Moderates wanted to regulate the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol for the safety of society. Moderates saw this regulation as a part of good public policy. They did not view drinking as sinful. 


  • Jensen, Richard. "Iowa, Wet or Dry? Prohibition and the Fall of the GOP" in Iowa History Reader, ed. Marvin Bergman. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press with State Historical Society of Iowa, 1996.
  • Nodaway County Museum (Clarinda, Iowa). Page County Women Temperance Folder.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996.
  • State Historical Society of Iowa Library and Archives. Prohibition Clippings File.