Column: A history on the wagon


Commentary by Ward Degler

I overheard someone say that so-and-so wasn’t much fun at the party because “he was on the wagon.” Being an addict of words and their meanings, I just naturally had to hop on the wagon myself and find out what it was all about.

There are at least two stories about the origin of the phrase. Both root the words firmly in American soil, and both feature the streets of New York somewhere around the first of the 20th century.

Men who were given jail sentences, one version claims, were loaded on a wagon that would haul them to the pokey. On the way, legend has it, the driver would stop at a saloon and the men were allowed one final drink before facing the cold, harsh abstinence of the jail cell.

Another version attributes the phrase to water wagons that were used to dampen dusty streets of the city. Those on the wagon drank water instead of beer. Or, so the story goes.

This side of the story was heavily embraced by militant temperance groups such as the New York Anti-Saloon League. The superintendent of this organization, William Hamilton Anderson, declared those who abstained from booze to be “teetotalers,” presumably opting to drink nothing but tea.

Part of the anti-drinking movement at the time was the work of Lyman Beader and the Preston Temperance Society. Apparently, men who sobered up and joined the Society were required to “take the pledge.” After raising their hand and reciting the words, they would sign it and place a capitol “T” after their signature, signifying they were Teetotalers.

Of course, none of these could hold a candle to Carrie Nation, who not only supported temperance, but who dramatically enforced it by leading a group of hymn-singing women into saloons and destroying the bottles and kegs with a hatchet. She believed the authority for her actions came in a vision from God, and even though she was arrested and fined more than 30 times, she never stopped swinging her axe.

Today’s temperance activities are confidently and more sedately stated in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. AA Members don’t destroy saloons, they just don’t go into them.

And as far as I know, they don’t ride wagons or sign pledges either.


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