Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

When Beer Was Almost Illegal

A Popular Speaker Sways Opinion

When Beer Was(Almost Illegal | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeP. T. Barnum

Statue of P. T. Barnum, 1960

A statue of P.T. Barnum was in front of the Wisconsin State Historical Society building to announce the coming of the "Barnum Sideshow of the 19th Century" to the Circus World Museum at Baraboo. Leslie H. Fishel, Jr., left, director of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and Joseph Mercedes, owner-operator of the side show, flank the statue. A two-horse carriage paraded the statue around the Capitol Square. View the original source document: WHI 105270

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. Though in Milwaukee, where beer was a vital part of German culture, almost ten times as many people voted against prohibition as voted for it.

P. T. Barnum

The likely reason for the surprising vote was that a few weeks earlier circus promoter and celebrity P. T. Barnum 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.

EnlargeA man sits at a table, holding a cigarette in one hand and pouring a bottle of Tivoli pilsner beer into a glass with the other. Original caption reads: "Special photos taken for Commercial Car Journal to illustrate article on Tivoli Brewery."

Man Pouring Beer, ca. 1935

A man sits at a table, holding a cigarette in one hand and pouring a bottle of Tivoli pilsner beer into a glass with the other. Original caption reads: "Special photos taken for Commercial Car Journal to illustrate article on Tivoli Brewery." View the original source document: WHI 58906

You can find more original documents and background information on the early temperance movement and modern prohibition at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

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