Alcoholics Anonymous, the highly successful organization that helps individuals fight alcohol addiction, was founded in Akron, Ohio in 1935 (Anonymous 2015). The organization (commonly known as “AA”) remained small before the 1939 publication of the group’s philosophy and methods of practice. The “Big Book”, as it came to be known, set out the all-important Twelve Steps of Recovery and contained personal stories from group members—another critical component of the organization. Alcoholics Anonymous has become an international organization; in 2012, AA Census estimated that there were 114,642 groups and 2,131,549 members (S., Arthur, 2014).
This English-made ceramic teacup (Figure 1), dating to the second quarter of the nineteenth century and found in a Baltimore privy (Basalik and Payne 1982), is a tangible reminder that overuse of alcohol is not just a modern-day problem. The cup contains a printed design of a man and woman flanking a shield-shaped motif from which sprouts an oak tree. A banner above the heads of the figures proclaims “Firm as an Oak”, while banners beneath their feet state “Be Thou Faithful Unto Death”. The male and female each appear to be holding flags, although these portions of the cup are missing. Complete vessels suggest that the flags would have read “Sobriety” (male) and “Domestic Comfort (female).
The cup’s motif, sometimes referred to as “The Teetotal Coat of Arms”, symbolizes the moral reform movement that supported abstinence from alcoholic beverages. This crusade, aimed at the working class, was popular in both Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century (Smith 1993).
Almost one hundred years prior to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization with methods and a philosophy very similar to that of AA was formed in Baltimore. In 1840, six dedicated drinkers who met regularly at Chase’s Tavern on Liberty Street appointed two of the group to attend a temperance lecture by Reverend Matthew Hale Smith (Daniels 1878). The speaker and his ideas struck a chord with the two men, who reported back favorably to their friends. Thus was born the Washingtonian Temperance Society (also known as the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society and as the Washingtonians). Oddly enough, early meetings were held in Chase’s Tavern, until the tavern owner’s wife objected over the loss of income (S. Arthur 2014).
The Washingtonian Temperance Movement viewed alcoholism as an individual problem, rather than as a large-scale social or moral challenge, as did many of the other temperance groups. Membership in the Baltimore society rose quickly and by 1841, meetings were being held in Boston and New York (Maxwell 1950). In 1842, the group published “The Foundation, Progress and Principles of the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore”, setting out their guiding principles. Many of these principles were similar to those of today’s Alcoholics Anonymous, including promoting the sharing of experiences of both drunkenness and recovery, and the reliance on both fellow members and the divine in the quest for sobriety. Journalist T. S. Arthur wrote a number of widely reprinted newspaper articles on the Washingtonians and helped spur the creation of organization chapters around the United States. Arthur’s essays were collected in a very popular book entitled Six Nights with the Washingtonians; A Series of Temperance Tales (1842).
Since the methods and philosophy of the Washingtonians and AA are so similar, it is tempting to try to link the two organizations. There is no evidence, however, that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were even aware of the former existence of the Washingtonians (F., Bill 2006). Despite their successful beginnings, the Washingtonians had disappeared within a decade, victim of their own success, it seems. Politicians tried to use the Washingtonians to push their own political platforms, like abolition of slavery, and ultimately diluted the message and effectiveness of the organization.
Anonymous. 2015 Historical Data: The Birth of A.A. and Its Growth in the U.S./Canada. Website accessed 4-5-2015. http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/historical-data-the-birth-of-aa-and-its-growth-in-the-uscanada.
Arthur, Thomas S. 1842 Six Nights with the Washingtonians; A Series of Temperance Tales. Godey and McMichael, Philadelphia.
Basalik, Kenneth J. and Ted M. Payne. 1982 An Intensive Archaeological Survey at the H and S Bakery Building Site: An Executive Summary Report. Prepared for H & S Bakery by Cultural Heritage Research Services, Inc., New Castle, Delaware. Report on file at Maryland Historical Trust, Crownsville.
Daniels, Rev. W. H. 1878 The Temperance Reform and its Great Reformers, an Illustrated History. New York, Nelson & Phillips. Available online at https://archive.org/details/temperancereform00daniuoft.
F., Bill. 2006 The Way Out Club. Reprinted with permission from Dayton’s Intergroup’s Unity, January 2006. Available at http://www.wayoutclub.org/library/thewashingtonians.html.
Maxwell, Milton A. 1950 The Washingtonian Movement. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Volume 11:410-452.
S., Arthur. 2014 A Narrative Timeline of AA history. Edited and organized by Arthur S. Website accessed April 6, 2015. http://silkworth.net/timelines/AA_Timeline_2014-03-01_Public14.pdf.
Smith, Rebecca. 1993 The Temperance Movement and Class Struggle in Victorian England. History Department, Loyola University. http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1992-3/smith-r.htm. Accessed 1-20-2015.