Prohibition messaging in newspaper (photo courtesy of Westerville Public Library)
Food + Drink

How Ohio’s Anti-Saloon League Helped Lead a Last Call on Alcohol

The 18th Amendment and Prohibition put an end to the United States enjoyment of spirits — an effort spearheaded by a group that was founded in Oberlin in 1893.

“When a man’s tracks point toward the saloon, his back is toward heaven.”  

That message from a 1910-era flier was delivered courtesy of the Anti-Saloon League of America. The group’s mission: to lobby for temperance and legislation to outlaw “the nation’s foe:” alcohol.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the League’s creation — and a movement that helped define a new United States in the Progressive Era and the Roaring ’20s.

The story starts in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1893, when a group of mostly ministers and professors sought to spread the word of temperance and influence the state government. The Ohio-based Anti-Saloon League was formed as a non-partisan lobbying group focused on unifying temperance proponents and fighting for stronger anti-alcohol legislation. That same year, a similar group was forming in Washington, D.C., and within two years the factions had joined forces and took their message to a national level.

The growing unified organization soon relocated its headquarters to Westerville, Ohio, with a goal of opening a publishing house and building more momentum for the cause, says Kathryn Kaslow, a museum specialist at the Westerville History Museum in Westerville. “The railroad ran through Westerville into the main hub of Columbus,” she says. “It was a convenient location to get materials out to more places.”

The American Issue Publishing Company set up a cutting-edge print shop and made a splash with an avalanche of pamphlets and propaganda. “About 40 tons of mail were being processed every month at the group’s height,” says Kaslow. “That illustrates the depth and power of the organization that it could sustain itself financially while cranking out that much literature.”

Their rallying cry of “VOTE DRY!” picked up steam among citizens, and the League-backed political candidates picked up more and more influential government roles. Soon national Prohibition was a real possibility.

In 1913, the Anti-Saloon League was at the helm of a full-court press on the U.S. government, and leadership delivered 18th Amendment proposals directly into legislators’ hands. It took six more years and a cultural wave of patriotism brought on by World War I to make it official. On Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified, banning the production and sale of alcohol nationwide.

Anti-Saloon League of America in Columbus (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

It was a huge win for the League and the future looked bright — but cracks began forming almost right away. “The League accomplished their goal, so there was no need for this much support anymore,” says Kaslow. “Financial reports showed them publishing less every year and declining revenues throughout the Prohibition years.” Plus, leadership disagreed on the League’s new message: one side wanted to focus on enforcing the new laws while the other side advocated for educating the public on the dangers of alcohol use.

For the good part of 13 years, Prohibition was the rule of the land. But the Great Depression left the country in desperate need of job opportunities and economy-friendly tax revenues.

The League, plagued by infighting, waning support and aging leadership, was also running on fumes. On Dec. 5, 1933 — 90 years ago this year and 40 years after the League’s founding — the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition.

Over the last century, the League has rebranded several times and still exists today as the American Council on Addiction and Alcohol Problems, with an expanded focus on drugs. But they never quite regained the momentum of the pre-Prohibition years when they took on “the nation’s foe” and succeeded in putting the end to cocktails — for a little while, at least.


Martini glass and Noble Cut Distillery signature vodka bottle (photo courtesy of Noble Cut Distillery)
Drink Up History: The Westerville History Museum, housed in the Anti-Saloon League’s original headquarters in Westerville, traces the history of the movement in photos and their printed literature. While you’re in the area, taste test sips from local microbreweries and spirit-makers, including Central Ohio favorites like nearby 451 Spirits and Noble Cut Distillery along the Columbus Distillery Trail. 

Proof Magazine is for Ohio spirit lovers. It is produced by Great Lakes Publishing three times a year. Dont miss an issue by subscribing to Ohio MagazineView a digital version of the Proof Magazine Summer 2023 edition here