The temperance movement, the campaign to outlaw liquor consumption, arrived in California riding a wave of controversy in the mid 1870s. Campaigns to install “local option” ordinances took place up and down the state and Santa Barbara was the scene of an especially lively battle between the “wets” and the “drys.”
In 1874, the State Legislature passed a statute stating that special elections must be held locally regarding the issuance of liquor licenses if at least one-fourth of a community’s electorate so petitioned. If voters selected “no license,” this would apply only to saloons; larger quantities of liquor (more than five gallons) could be sold at other venues. The idea was that while many had the funds to purchase a few drinks, few would have the cash to buy spirits in bulk. At the same time, the troublesome social dynamics of saloons, a k a drunken brawls, would be eliminated.
During this period, there were 26 saloons serving a population of a little more than 3,000, and the owners of these establishments of course thought local option a terrible idea in Santa Barbara. Yet they were not too concerned; after all, only men had the vote and the temperance movement was a campaign waged primarily by women.
In April, the leaders of the Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches, along with influential women parishioners, held a conference and set up a series of prayer meetings during the next five weeks to bring their message to their respective congregations. Canvassers then fanned out to collect signatures to get local option on the ballot. On May 4 it was announced the required number of signatures had been collected; polling was set for June 22.
The campaign now heated up. Two mass meetings were held at José Lobero’s opera house, both of which drew 800 and almost 1,200 people, respectively. The audiences were entertained with musical selections and any number of speeches on the evils of demon rum. At least one speech was always in Spanish and geared to the non-English speaking citizenry.
The morning of the 22nd saw 40 women volunteers rally at a polling place on East Carrillo Street to urge voters to make the right choice. By law, women could only get so close to the polls; anyone who attempted to cross the barrier was stopped by the marshal and his deputies. The women set up a buffet of free food and drink and arranged transportation for those who could not get to the polls on their own. The pro-license forces greeted voters with a marching band and, in the late afternoon when it became clear the tide was turning against them, arranged their own convoy of wagons and carriages to carry their supporters to the polls. Two hours after the polls closed, the results were in; the citizenry had renounced saloons by a majority of 119, which set off a riotous celebration by the victors.
Other localities also held elections. In Montecito, the drys eked out a victory on July 9 by one vote despite the opposition’s giveaway of free liquor. Anti-license forces also won in Goleta, Carpinteria, and Santa Maria.
The victory was short-lived, however, when the state Supreme Court found local option polling unconstitutional. Yet temperance did not go away; in 1883 a local branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed. In 1887 a Woman’s Exchange, where women of modest circumstances could sell baked goods and handicrafts to supplement their incomes, was established. A percentage of sales went to support WCTU activities.
Temperance supporters were vindicated, albeit temporarily, with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” nationwide. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and the fact that Santa Barbara was once a “dry” town has become just a historical footnote.