Q: “Did the temperance movement ever catch on here?”

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

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

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


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