Article by Julia Skelly

T

extiles have long been a powerful element in political movements and activism. At the turn of the 19th century some Canadian women produced banners and other textile objects to demonstrate their identities as political activists who were fighting for temperance and prohibition. Members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.), which was established in Canada in 1874 by Letitia Creighton-Youmans, battled against the notion of “too much”: too much drinking, too much smoking, too much gambling. In her President’s Address at the fourth biennial World’s Convention in Toronto in 1897, the founder of the American W.C.T.U., Frances E.Willard, commented:


“There is hardly a form of expression more frequent than, ‘He took too much.’ We hear it even from the lips of the temperance mother who believes that any at all is too much when it is a question of using intoxicating liquors as a drink.”1 The slogan of “too much” cut both ways, however. As promoters of total abstinence (rather than moderation), W.C.T.U. members’ voices, bodies, and rhetoric were often resisted by both habitual drinkers and by manufacturers of alcohol. The excessive zeal of these campaigners, in terms of both ideology and physical intrusion in milieux unreceptive to their message, sometimes led to violence, as for instance in 1890 when members of the W.C.T.U. tried to lure men and women out of bars in Ottawa, an action that resulted in a riot. This intervention was perceived as its own kind of aggression by individuals who had no desire to stop drinking.

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Julia Skelly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal.

1 – Frances Willard, “Address before the Fourth Biennial Convention of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union” (1897), 36.
2 – See, for instance, Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, “‘Oh, Lord, Pour a Cordial in Her Wounded Heart’: The Drinking Woman in Victorian and Edwardian Canada,” in Cheryl Krasnick Warsh (ed.), Drink in Canada: Historical Essays (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 70-114.
3 – Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 24.

Banner (Workers with God. Hamilton W.C.T.U.)
Photograph: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2002.7.6, D2004-26573