“Temperance and Tea Socials”: Discerning the Significance of the Sackville Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1894-1895
by Clayton Burrill

Download PDF version

 The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was an extremely important women's organization that emerged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Though its explicit purpose was to fight for temperance, it quickly became involved in a whole host of activities, ranging from the establishment of libraries to prison reform advocacy and the promotion of female suffrage. Beginning in the 1870s, chapters of the WCTU began to spring up across North America, including in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. One such chapter was founded in Sackville, New Brunswick in 1883, the meeting minutes of which have survived for the periods 1883-1887, 1894-1897, and 1901-1905. Taking advantage of these resources, this paper examines the Sackville chapter of the WCTU, focusing specifically on the year lasting from March 23, 1894 to March 7, 1895. This approach facilitates a narrowly-focused case study of the Maritime WCTU, permitting us to gain a clearer idea of how wider regional themes played out in a community context. Perhaps more importantly and more broadly, it also allows us to develop a fuller understanding of the significance of the Sackville WCTU at the end of the nineteenth century.

This essay is divided into two sections. In the first, it provides some background information on the formation and composition of the WCTU internationally as well as within Canada and particularly in the Maritimes. In the second part, it takes a closer look at the Sackville WCTU, again providing some background information and outlining the group's activities during the period from March, 1894 to March, 1895. Building on these foundations, it argues that although the Sackville WCTU was involved in initiatives similar to those undertaken by other chapters of the WCTU, its principal significance lay not in these activities but in providing a social space for local women.

Scott Act flyer (2pp), Mount Allison Archives, Women’s Christian Temperance Union fonds, 0501.Placing the Sackville WCTU in a Wider Context

The first chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was formed in the United States at Fair Point, New York in 1874. By May of the same year, the first Canadian chapter had been founded at Owen Sound, Ontario. The WCTU spread quickly throughout Canada. The first provincial organization emerged in 1877 when the network of local unions that had sprung up across Ontario joined together to form the Ontario WCTU. (1) In the Maritimes, chapters of the WCTU began to form as early as the 1870s as well. The first chapter in New Brunswick was organized in Moncton in 1875, and by January 1878, others existed in Fredericton, Saint John, Woodstock, and St. Stephen. (2) A New Brunswick provincial WCTU formed in 1879, which came together with the Nova Scotia organization in 1883 to produce what was called the Maritime WCTU, although Prince Edward Island did not join until later.

The rapid growth of the Maritime movement reflected that of the movement internationally. As Ruth Bordin points out in Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900, women joined the WCTU “in numbers that greatly surpassed their participation in any other women's organization in the nineteenth century,” making the WCTU “the first women's mass movement.” (3) In fact, by 1891, it had around 200,000 members globally. (4) By 1892, the American organization alone had nearly 150,000 dues-paying members and including auxiliaries numbered well over 200,000. The significance of these figures is underscored by the comparatively low level of participation in other prominent women's groups of the time. Scott Act flyer (2pp), Mount Allison Archives, Women’s Christian Temperance Union fonds, 0501.In 1892, for example, 20,000 women were affiliated with the General Federation of Women's Clubs and in 1893 the National American Woman Suffrage Association had roughly 13,000 members. (5)
The initial aim of the WCTU was, of course, to fight for temperance. However, the WCTU interpreted temperance to mean more than mere abstinence from alcoholic drink. Rather, it was broadly conceived as protection of the home, which led women from many social and economic strata to be caught up in feminist and reformist goals. (6) As Joanne Veer, the author of a PhD thesis on the Maritime WCTU, puts it, “the WCTU developed a holistic philosophy which focused on prohibition as a starting point in the elimination of injustices and inequities” in society. (7) Temperance work in this way became a gateway for women into an expanded and more active public role.

The original thrust of the WCTU's work involved what its members referred to as “moral suasion” but already by 1879 the organization had begun to take a more political approach. By 1881, under the influence of the greatly-respected international WCTU leader Frances Willard, their focus had widened again as they adopted a “do everything” policy, “which included all reforms necessary to reconstruct society on the basis of social Christianity.” (8) Indeed, the WCTU was a strongly religious movement. Though it was open to Catholics, its membership was comprised almost entirely of women from different Protestant denominations, often Baptist and Methodist. It was motivated by a desire, similar to that which later animated the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century, to achieve the creation of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, “the triumph of Christ's Golden Rule in custom and in law.” (9) Even the structure of its meetings highlighted the religious nature of the WCTU. Every meeting began with a hymn, prayer, and scripture and ended with the singing of a doxology. (10)

The WCTU was extremely important as a women's movement in the Maritimes. Historian Ernest Forbes has written about the Canadian WCTU that

"[o]f the various missionary, philanthropic and humanitarian societies which served to enlarge women's public sphere in late Victorian Canada, the WCTU was the most effective in promoting explicit feminism. Its official goal, the suppression of alcoholic beverages, provided a rationale for making women more conscious of their social and political disabilities, for developing skills in political agitation and for demanding female suffrage." (11)

This seems to have been particularly true of the Maritime WCTU. Referring to it as “consciously feminist,” (12) Veer has argued that “[i]n the Maritimes it was temperance, more than the later suffrage movement that facilitated the promotion of women's rights.” (13) Indeed, the Maritime WCTU was slightly more progressive than its sister organizations in Ontario and Western Canada. It pressed for political, economic, social and legal equality with men, acting as what Veer calls a “training ground” for the social avenues it hoped would open to women. (14) This is demonstrated strikingly by the case of Edith Archibald, which Forbes examines in his article “Battles in Another War: Edith Archibald and the Halifax Feminist Movement.” Archibald, president of the Maritime WCTU for most of the 1890s, “led the WCTU conventions in drills in parliamentary procedure, wrote suffrage pamphlets, founded a suffrage journal, organized suffrage petitions to the legislature and engaged an MLA in a public debate on the issue.” (15)

The membership of the WCTU in the Maritimes cannot be placed entirely in a single category but for the most part it was comprised of white, middle-class women. In particular, the leadership of the union represented not only the middle class but a counterpart to the region's male élite as well. Edith Archibald, for example, was the daughter of E.M. Archibald, who had been attorney-general of Newfoundland and served as British consul-general in New York. Her husband was the son of Senator Thomas Archibald, owner of “extensive” coals properties in Cape Breton. (16) The general membership of the regional Union, however, cut across class lines to a greater extent. In fact, the WCTU consciously tried to appeal to women of different classes. To attract members of the upper classes, they held parlor meetings while for lower-class women they organized ‘mothers' meeting,' which offered the opportunity to learn about temperance practices without the obligation to pay monthly dues. (17)

As in the international WCTU, Maritime branches seem to have held a strong appeal for women there. The number of locals in the region grew rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s, from twenty-one in 1883 to 83 in 1894. (18) Membership figures for the Maritime WCTU from around this time are impressive, although not entirely representative of participation as only dues-paying members were recorded. From 1888 to 1900, nonetheless, official numbers were consistently placed at between 1500 and 2000. (19)

Maritime women became involved in a whole range of activities through the WCTU. In general, the Union's activities were divided into six departments – preventive, educational, evangelical, social, organizational, and legislative – but one of its most interesting aspects was that its efforts were formed in response to the perceived needs of individual communities. (20) In the fishing communities of Lunenburg and Canso, for instance, Sailors' Departments existed and had a high priority. (21) The sheer number of different initiatives the Maritime WCTU and its various locals undertook is astounding. To cite but a few of the examples Veer mentions, “they established restorative, curative institutions such as women's exchanges and employment bureaus, industrial schools, coffee rooms, boarding houses, libraries, rescue homes, sailors' rests, little girls' homes, night classes, and lecture series.” (22) Furthermore, as Edith Archibald's case indicates, they also had more specifically feminist aims. Besides advocating and fighting for female suffrage, they pressed for the right of women to work in all occupations, and worked for the education and comfort of working-class women especially. (23)
The Sackville WCTU: Background, Initiatives, and the Organization's Social Role

The Sackville chapter of the WCTU was founded on March 21, 1883 with the help of a visiting “deputation” from Moncton. The new group promptly adopted the pledge of the Ottawa WCTU, which was signed by twenty-one women, and appointed a committee to draft a constitution. The chapter's first president was Laura Wood, who was the wife of the wealthy Sackville businessman Josiah Wood. As per WCTU convention, three Vice President's were also elected – one for each denomination represented in the group. (24) The class composition of the organization is difficult to discern from its meeting minutes. Wood was almost certainly its wealthiest member. In general, however, judging by the prominent Sackville names of some of the other women – Trueman, Allison, and Dixon, for example – it seems fair to assume that for the most part its membership was middle class.

During the period examined in this paper, March 23, 1894 to March 7, 1895, which was book-ended by annual meetings, the Sackville WCTU was engaged in a number of different initiatives. They subscribed to the monthly temperance paper “Monthly Advice,” which they hoped would be used by teachers in the Sackville area. (25) They had a weekly column in the “Chignecto Post,” written by Miss Annie Trueman with the help of Mrs. Archibald, which dealt with temperance themes in an effort to educate the public. (26) As the regular reports of their corresponding secretary demonstrate, they were also in frequent contact with other WCTU locals, as well as the regional and national organizations. (27)

To outline several more of their activities, in September, the Sackville WCTU prepared a dinner for a Band Tournament. (28) In October, they sent two delegates to a district convention. (29) In November, they organized for Maritime President Edith Archibald and Sir Leonard Tilley to give public addresses when they were in Sackville. (30) Also, in early March 1895, Mrs. Archibald reported that she had overseen the formation of a chapter of the Young Woman's Temperance Union, often referred to as the “Ys,” at the Ladies' College. (31)

As this cursory overview attests, the Sackville WCTU was involved in an almost striking number of activities during the period March 1894 to March 1895. Importantly, their various projects reflected those undertaken by other locals of the WCTU, as well as by the regional and national unions. Weekly columns in local newspapers, for example, or the organization of “Ys” for youth and Bands of Hope for children, were standard features of the WCTU strategy for spreading the temperance message. While it would be a mistake to question the importance of the above initiatives of the Sackville WCTU, it is clear that the group's primary significance lay in the social role it filled in the lives of its mainly middle-class members. Primarily, it provided a social space where they could meet and discuss relevant issues as women, thus serving the basic function of facilitating female community.

Several aspects of the WCTU's activities and conduct during the year lasting from March 1894 to March 1895 highlight the significance of the social purpose the WCTU fulfilled for Sackville women. One was the meetings themselves. As Cheryl Krasnick Warsh points out, making an interesting association between meetings and parties, “[i]n Canada the early temperance societies were social and offered parties, meetings, band concerts, and parades.” (32) In Sackville, as was no doubt true elsewhere, regular WCTU meetings constituted a meaningful communal experience. This was the effect of the singing, praying and scripture reading with which they began and ended. WCTU women were very religious and drew much of their strength from sharing in the communal religious devotion of a single-sex setting. Sackville WCTU meetings were also significant social events in that they often provided an opportunity for informal socializing before or after meetings. At the June 4 meeting in 1894, for example, a real social occasion in that eighteen women were present, recording secretary Mrs. E. Humphrey noted: “Meeting adjourned informally.” (33) Similarly, on August 2 she wrote that the “[m]eeting opened informally.” (34)

Another interesting indication of the social significance of the Sackville WCTU was the importance its members placed on their reading room. Setting up the reading room was one of the Sackville group's early initiatives and it served several purposes. For one, as Trisha Estabrooks explains, “[t]he reading room itself was part of a larger [WCTU] initiative which had the education of the community's youth as its foremost concern.” (35) To this end, the WCTU stocked it with different kinds of reading material, including temperance leaflets and newsletters but also newspapers like the Moncton “Daily Transcript.” (36) The reading room, however, also seems to have had a more immediate significance for WCTU women in that it provided a physical space in which they could meet and over which they exercised control. How important this space was to them is suggested by the amount of time they spent discussing the question of who was to be its caretaker. In fact, between March 1894 and March 1895, this issue appears in the meeting minutes more than any other. It was first mentioned at the April 26, 1894 meeting after the current caretaker, a Mr. Hart, tendered his resignation and still had not been fully resolved by March 7, 1895, the end of the period this study examines. (37)
Perhaps the principal indication of the significance of the social role the Sackville WCTU played in the lives of its members can be found in the group's frequent holding of socials. As with the reading room, socials (or tea socials, as they were also called) served different purposes. For one, they were the organization's preferred means of fundraising. The idea was that individual members would take turns hosting these events at which a collection would be taken to aid a specific cause. In November 1894, for example, the Sackville group decided to help the YMCA fund the building of a hall in Sackville. They proposed to raise five hundred dollars initially and then to continue to provide assistance “until the building [was] free of debt.” (38) This may seem an impossible amount to raise by holding socials but one such event could bring in over twenty dollars. A social held at Mrs. Powell's in January 1895, for instance, raised eighteen and another held at Mrs. Wood's on Feb. 1, raised twenty-four. (39) At the rate of two socials per month, raising twenty dollars on average, the WCTU could reasonably hope to have raised five hundred dollars in a little over a year.

From the perspective of the Sackville WCTU's social role, these socials were particularly significant in two ways. First of all, WCTU women chose a method of fundraising that was necessarily communal, bringing fun into the task they had set themselves. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, tea socials were premised on the idea of women coming together in a social context. In this way, they constituted an important end in themselves. Certainly, WCTU women seem to have valued them in much the same way they valued their reading room. Both were recognized as important facilitators of female community.

To close, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was the largest international women's organization of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the Maritime Provinces of Canada it served a dual role as a prominent temperance organization and an early advocate of women's rights. The Maritime WCTU undertook a whole range of initiatives, starting libraries and orphanages, for instance, but also fighting for women's suffrage and right to work in any occupation. The Sackville, New Brunswick chapter of the WCTU was involved in similar activities. In the year from March, 1894 to March, 1895, it organized public speeches, sent delegates to a district convention, and contributed a weekly column in the local newspaper, among other things. What a case study of the Sackville WCTU provides, however, is more than an intimate account of WCTU activities. Rather, it reveals that in a community context, at least in Sackville, the chief importance of the WCTU lay in the social role it played in the lives of (primarily middle-class) women. This is indicated by the importance these women placed on the female social space their reading room offered, the social aspect of their meetings, and most importantly by their employment of tea socials as their preferred means of fundraising. Whether this was the significance of the WCTU in other communities will have to be left to further research to determine.


1. Joanne E. Veer, “Feminist Forebears: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Canada's Maritime Provinces, 1875-1900” (PhD thesis, University of New Brunswick, 1994), 5.

2. Ibid., 6.

3. Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), 3.

4. Veer, 15.

5. Bordin, 3-4.

6. Ibid., 3

7. Veer, 2.

8. Ibid., 13

9. Elizabeth Putnam Gordon, Women Torch-Bearers: The Story of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Evanston: National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1924), 16.

10. MAA, The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Sackville, New Brunswick fonds, 0501. Minutes of the Sackville WCTU. March 23, 1894 to March 7, 1895. WCTU meetings followed a closely-adhered to structure that included prayer, song, scripture readings, reports, and discussion.

11. Ernest R. Forbes, “Battles in Another War: Edith Archibald and the Halifax Feminist Movement” in Challenging the Regional Stereotype: Essays on the 20th Century Maritimes (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1989), 70.

12. Veer, 5.

13. Ibid., 1.

14. Ibid., 3, 4, 11.

15. Forbes, 70.

16. Ibid., 69.

17. Veer, 18; Trisha C. Estabrooks, “From Petticoats to Politics: The Prohibition Movement in New Brunswick” (B.A. thesis, Mount Allison University, 1999), 46-47.

18. Veer, 22.

19. Ibid., 21.

20. Estabrooks, 31.

21. Veer, 12.

22. Ibid., 374.

23. Ibid., 374-375.

24. MAA. Minutes of the Sackville WCTU. 21 March 1883.

25. Ibid., 23 March 1894.

26. Ibid.

27. After singing, prayers, scripture readings, and the adoption of the minutes of the previous meeting, the president would call for the report of the corresponding secretary.

28. MAA, Minutes of the Sackville WCTU. 2 August 1894.

29. Ibid., 1 November 1894.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., 7 March 1895.

32. Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, “‘John Barleycorn Must Die’: An Introduction to the Social History of Alcohol” in Drink in Canada: Historical Essays, ed. Cheryl Krasnick Walsh (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 16.

33. MAA. Minutes of the Sackville WCTU. 4 June 1894.

34. Ibid., 2 August 1894.

35. Estabrooks, 37.

36. MAA,.Minutes of the Sackville WCTU. 12 April 1894.

37. Ibid., 26 April 1894 and 7 March 1895.

38. Ibid., 22 November 1894.

39. Ibid., 24 January 1895 and 18 February 1895.



Bordin, Ruth. Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.

Estabrooks, Trisha C. “From Petticoats to Politics: The Prohibition Movement in New Brunswick.” B.A. thesis, Mount Allison University, 1999.

Forbes, Ernest R. “Battles in Another War: Edith Archibald and the Halifax Feminist Movement.” In Challenging the Regional Stereotype: Essays on the 20th Century Maritimes. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1989.

Gordon, Elizabeth Putnam. Women Torch-Bearers: The Story of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Evanston: National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1924.

Mount Allison University Archives. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Sackville, New Brunswick fonds, 0501.

Veer, Joanne E. “Feminist Forebears: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Canada's Maritime Provinces, 1875-1900.” PhD thesis, University of New Brunswick, 1994.

Warsh, Cheryl Krasnick. “‘John Barleycorn Must Die': An Introduction to the Social History of Alcohol.” In Drink in Canada: Historical Essays, edited by Cheryl Krasnick Walsh. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.