In the early 1800s, the temperance movement swept the nation. By 1830, the average American adult male drank the equivalent of almost seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. The campaign to limit alcohol consumption grew out of increasing concern over the effects of alcohol on daily life.
Drunken behavior had widespread effects on families. Many men were abusive to their wives and children, who had no legal recourse against them. Since married women did not own property in their own right and rarely worked outside the home, they were completely dependent on their husbands to support them and their children. And because women could not vote, they had no legal power to challenge either their husbands or the current laws. It didn’t help that, at the time, laborers were often paid with liquor, leaving nothing to bring home to support the household.
Not surprisingly then, women were at the forefront of the temperance movement. Much of this activity was organized through their churches. Because of the involvement of the churches, and because temperance was considered a “hearth and home” issue, opposition to liquor was considered an acceptable venue for female social activism. The Needham Temperance Society was founded in 1830, and by 1831 had 209 members (74 men and 135 women). The organization was influential, sponsoring quarterly meetings and local lectures.
In 1857 the Nehoiden Division Sons of Temperance Number 15, a men’s-only society, was founded with 12 members signing the pledge. The Needham branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1886, led by Dr. Vesta Miller, a longtime temperance advocate. Due in part to the correlation of drinking and domestic insecurity, the temperance movement shared many advocates with other women’s rights movements of the day, especially the Suffrage movement.
The Appleton Temporary Home for Inebriates was one part of Needham’s temperance organization. Appleton was a charitable organization, dedicated to the care of men “reduced by circumstances and indulgence in intoxicating drink, who had signed a pledge” – a pledge to abstain. It was “temporary” in the optimistic expectation that its inmates would regain their health and sobriety, and reclaim a place in society. The men spent their recovery time working for the Home by refurbishing and maintaining its buildings and grounds, including stables, a gymnasium and a bowling alley. The Home opened in 1875, and operated until 1881. It was sponsored by the Temperance Society of the Boston YMCA, and had strong support in Needham.
Prior to the Appleton Home, the building was home to a private girls’ school, the Oakland Institute, and later a boys’ school called Oakland Hall. Oakland Hall closed in 1870, leaving the building vacant and deteriorating for five years. After the Appleton Home closed, the house was purchased by Mrs. Clementina B. Cummings and converted into a summer boarding house known as “The Pines.” The Pines closed in 1882, and the building was shifted to an adjacent lot at the corner of May Street and Oakland Avenue. It was torn town in 1964 when St. Joseph’s built the current church.
The passage of Prohibition in 1920 brought federal resources to the temperance movement. Federal Prohibition was largely driven by women exercising their brand-new right to vote. The liquor industry had strongly opposed women’s suffrage, knowing that voting women would be their adversaries; women knew this too, and returned the opposition as soon as they were able.
Though prohibition was repealed at the federal level in 1933, local communities were not obligated to comply. Needham maintained local prohibition standards well into the 1960s, and there was a Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter here until the 1970s. Although the liquor laws began to ease over the years, it was not until 2013 that retail liquor stores finally become legal in Needham.
Gloria Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. The Appleton Home, formerly at the corner of Highland Avenue and May Street, is just one of more than 40 sites highlighted in Needham’s Walk through History. This free community event will take place on October 6th from 11am to 3pm. For more information, see our website, www.needhamistory.org.