Unique Temperance sketch book, likely by a WCTU member

H.M. Weston[?], [Untitled sketch book bearing 30 pages of clever and occasionally quite vivid sketches of Temperance allegories and cartoons.] NP [but likely Boston or eastern Massachusetts,] 1886-1889.
Oblong 8vo (5 ½”h x 8 ¾”w), 37 unnumbered leaves bearing 30pp of sketches (sometimes more than one per page) in pencil and ink, with occasional highlighting in red ink, most dated in the lower-right corner. Front paste-down with ticket of “A. A. Walker & Co., Artists Materials and Fine Stationery, 538 Washington St., Boston.” Brown cloth over boards.

A unique and delightful book of sketches on Temperance themes, likely executed by a WCTU member in the mid-late 1880s.

Based on internal evidence, the 30 pages of sketches were executed in Boston or elsewhere in eastern Massachusetts between 1886 and 1889, probably by a woman and member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Founded in 1873 and still active today, the WCTU energized the Temperance cause, its growth and success culminating in the passage of the 18th Amendent in 1920.

The sketch book uses a remarkable variety of images and symbols to express a few simple themes: the perils of drink, the saving power of Christ and his teachings as articulated in the Bible, the pernicious influence wielded by wealthy producers and purveyors of alcohol, and the slow advance of the Temperance movement in the political arena. Some are simple allegories, for instance a man fleeing a giant, spear-bearing bottle for the safety of the Castle of Christ. Others exhort the viewer to embrace the abstinence pledge, such as a three-part sketch reading “Abstain from Sin Seek Jesus / Begin to Sign the Pledge / Continue to the End.” Yet others are Temperance-themed political cartoons, such as one dated April 24, 1889 referring to a failed attempt to enact Prohibition in Massachusetts by popular vote (featuring the ship Prohibition chained in dry dock by the majority of “NO” votes). These provide strong visual evidence that from its early years Temperance was a political as well as a religious and social movement.

All the sketches have a decided folk-art quality, marked by bold, simple images; crudely-drawn human figures; and uneven attempts at rendering perspective. Despite her lack of technical skill, the sheer range of imagery, symbols and rhetorical tools is impressively sophisticated. This is an instance in which the artist’s limitations somehow elevate the work and impart a profundity which occasionally alights on the vernacular.

The first leaf bears the inscription of one “H. M. Weston,” but this has been crossed out in pencil, so it is unclear whether Weston was the artist. Other than the inscription, however, the volume contains enough clues that a determined researcher might be able to nail or at least narrow down the artist’s identity: the ticket of the Boston stationer on the front endpaper; the reference to the Massachusetts Prohibition vote in one sketch and an image of maple sugaring in another; and the dating of the sketches (earliest May 11, 1886, the latest May 29, 1889). Last, but not least, are the many mentions of the WCTU and sister organizations, suggesting that the artist was both a woman and a member.

In all, a unique and remarkable piece of folk Americana from a vital period in the American Temperance movement.


Binding a bit shaken with one leaf loose, very minor soiling and wear to contents, though one leaf with a 3” vertical separation.