Taking the Pledge

On December 17, 1858, seven members of the Dorrance family of Florence, New York, gathered to sign a handwritten document to “mutually covenant and pledge ourselves individually to each other and to the world, that we will wholly abstain from intoxicating drinks and tobacco in any manner whatever…and that we will at all times do what we can to discountenance its use by others.” The family had taken the temperance pledge.

This document recently arrived at the Newberry as part of a collection of more than 500 temperance pledges documenting the temperance movement across the United States (with some examples, in addition, from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia) from the 1830s to the 1970s. Most are certificates suitable for framing and displaying in the home; some are small printed cards (intended for a wallet or purse) that would have reminded the owner to resist temptation whenever it arose.

The collection aligns with a number of subject areas represented elsewhere in the Newberry’s holdings. It is a rich resource on American social movements: most pledges in the collection were issued by temperance societies or organizations, from the Connecticut Cold Water Army of the 1840s to the Lincoln Legion (and its Southern offshoot, the Lincoln-Lee League) of the 1910s. The majority of the nineteenth-century pledges are signed, providing additional value for local history and genealogy researchers. As a collection of ephemera, the pledges are also of interest for their printing; executed by a variety of job printers and artisans, they feature illustrations ranging from charming woodcuts to bold chromolithography.

All of this research potential can sometimes exist in a single pledge. To take just one example: a Band of Hope pledge from 1861 was printed in red and black inks by the Gazette Steam Print Office in Janesville, Wisconsin, and signed by one Ella Bosworth, age 7, in the small town of Menasha, Wisconsin.

By Will Hansen, Curator of Americana and Director of Reader Services