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Odd Wisconsin Archive

When Beer Was (Almost) Illegal

Strange as it sounds, in November of 1853 a majority of Wisconsin voters chose to outlaw beer. That year a statewide referendum on liquor sales went 27,519 to 24,109 for prohibition. In Milwaukee, where beer was a vital part of German culture, the vote went the other way. Almost ten times as many people voted against prohibition as voted for it.

The likely reason for the surprising vote was that a few weeks earlier P.T. Barnum, circus promoter and celebrity, had toured Wisconsin in support of temperance. His personal fame, imposing appearance, charisma, and sheer enthusiasm won many citizens over to the cause.

He couldn't win the legislature, however, where enabling legislation was required to turn the public referendum into law. State senators and assemblymen were afraid of alienating German voters or appearing to ally themselves with Utopian reformers (dangerous radicals who wanted to abolish slavery and let women own property). So the lawmakers refused to act on the referendum, and the prohibition legislation died in committee.

You can find more original documents and background information on the early temperance movement and modern prohibition at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Maybe you'll want to enjoy a cold one while you browse.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on June 17, 2010

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