The Onward Reciter

Temperance was the largest and longest-lived social movement in nineteenth-century America. It was also a pervasive topic of popular culture, portrayed in performances on the theatrical stage, on the lyceum platform, and in the parlor. Temperance organizations in America and Great Britain created an international network of production and circulation of printed performance materials in order to galvanize supporters and reach a broad, general audience. They established their own publishing houses, lecture bureaus, youth groups, and oratorical contests. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, promoted speaking and writing about temperance as a means for women to develop and share their creative and authoritative voice. Drawing on rare books and pamphlets from the archives at the Center for Women’s History and Leadership (CWHL), Performing Temperance explores the ways in which temperance advocates used oratory, recitation, and drama to disseminate their reform agenda, educate children, and train temperance workers – especially women – to speak in public.

The books and other printed materials that follow were all intended to be heard. Temperance parlor drama guides, collections of recitations and dialogues, and WCTU oratorical contest booklets prompted a specific kind of reading. These texts were not usually read from cover to cover; instead, readers would search for and select a suitable piece to perform. Some artifacts were published as far away as London and Manchester, while others were printed by the National WCTU Publishing House, first at the Woman’s Temple building in Chicago, and later at what is now the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library and WCTU Archives in Evanston.

Text and curation ©2020 Fiona Maxwell, Museum Fellow at the Center for Women's History and Leadership.

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