No single aspect of Wisconsin’s history, regulatory system or ethnic composition created our alcohol environment. Many statements about Wisconsin carry the implicit assumption that the current alcohol environment (sometimes called the alcohol culture) has always been present and like Wisconsin’s geographic features it is unchanging and unchangeable. This timeline offers a broader perspective and alternative picture of Wisconsin’s past.
Today’s alcohol environment is very different from early Wisconsin where an active temperance movement existed before commercial brewing. Few people realize that many Wisconsin communities voted themselves “dry” before Prohibition. While some of those early policies are impractical and even quaint by modern standards, they indicate our current alcohol environment evolved over time. The policies and practices that support alcohol misuse are not historical treasures but simply ideas that may have outlived their usefulness.
Some well-known events unrelated to Wisconsin are included to place Wisconsin history within the larger context of American history. This document does not include significant events in alcohol production in Wisconsin. Beer production, as well as malt and yeast making were important aspects of Wisconsin’s, specifically Milwaukee’s, history. But Northwestern Mutual Insurance, its late President, Edmund Fitzgerald, industrial giant Allis Chalmers, shipbuilding and the timber industry all have contributed to Wisconsin’s history. Including the beer industry would distort its importance to Wisconsin and diminish the many contributions made by other equally important industries.
Alcohol Policy in Wisconsin History
1776: Benjamin Rush – physician singer of the Declaration of Independence, America’s first temperance leader, later author of text on alcohol that becomes basis for Temperance/Prohibitionist Movement.i
1832: The first Wisconsin temperance society was formed in Green Bay.ii
1833: Andrew Jackson becomes President of the United States.
1838: Solomon Ashley Dwinnell (1812-1879) was a Congregationalist minister who came to Wisconsin in 1838 and lived in Walworth and Sauk counties. His sermons were known for their "radical" pronouncements favoring temperance and condemning slavery, profanity, and Sabbath-breaking.iii
1839: Samuel & Jeremiah Phoenix persuaded the territorial legislature to create a new dry county named Walworth after a prominent eastern temperance leader. As the population became more heterogeneous in the 1850s, however, conformity became impossible to enforce and the experiment in Walworth County was abandoned.iv
1840: President William Henry Harrison dies in office and is succeed by Vice President John Tyler.
1840: Temperance society membership grew largely from individuals migrating to Wisconsin communities including Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Waukesha, and Rock counties from New England.v
1840: The Owens Brewery in Milwaukee is founded. It is generally considered the first commercial brewery in Wisconsin, although others may have existed earlier.vi
1840: Washingtonian Movement based on personal abstinence and the “reclamation of drunkards” established temperance as prevention.vii Some modern comparisons are made to AA.viii
1845: Sons of Temperance chapters in Wisconsin are organized. Members of the Milwaukee Chapter produced the first reform newspaper in the state, the Wisconsin Temperance Journal.ix
1846: The people of Wisconsin voted in favor of statehood. Congress passed the enabling act, and the first Constitutional Convention opened in Madison, October 15.
1846. Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in May 1848.
1847: Local option allowed each voting district to vote annually in municipal elections whether or not to issue liquor licenses.x
1848: The Grand (Milwaukee) Division of the Sons of Temperance founded.xi
1848: During the first legislative session of the new state Senate a bill was introduced by Simeon Mills to repeal the territorial licensing system and replace it with a system so “that all persons who shall sell ardent spirits shall be liable in suits at law for all damages which may give rise from such sales.” Passed the Senate 11-8, but died for lack of Assembly action.xii
1849: The same bill passed both houses and was signed by the Governor. Chapter 29, Revised Statutes of 1849 “An Act relating to the sale of spirituous liquors.” The law required a $1,000 bond from each alcohol retailer for anticipated damages resulting from his sale of liquor. Town boards could recover paupers’ damages from the posted funded.xiii
1849: On July 7th, Sons of Temperance toasted the state legislature for this action.xiv
1850: California is admitted to the United States.
1850: “Great trial of liquor sellers terminated today, having been in continuance more than two days. Suit brought by a wife to recover damages of a liquor seller on his bond of indemnity, for selling and rendering incapable her any support. Verdict for the plaintiff of $100, being the largest sum within the jurisdiction of the justices’ court. This is the first case under the new law of this kind which has been tried in the state.”xv
1851: Wisconsin's German population strenuously opposed the law, arguing that it undermined individual responsibility and imposed too harsh a penalty on tavern owners. In 1851, the legislature replaced the law with a milder version and a $100 license fee.xvi
1851: Maine adopted the first statewide prohibition law.xvii
1853: Wisconsin's first attempt at prohibition occurred in 1853, when the question of whether the legislature should enact a law prohibiting the sale of liquor in the state was submitted to a vote of the people. It was carried affirmatively by a vote of 27,579 to 24,109. In 1855 the legislature enacted a law prohibiting the sale of liquor and Governor Barstow vetoed it.xviii
1854: A group of women in Baraboo angered by the story of a “drunkard” who threatened to murder his wife destroyed all the grog shops, all of which were unlicensed. Six prominent women were arrested and sent to jail.xix
1855: Good Templars Lodge (temperance organization) established in Sheboygan.xx
1855: Wisconsin bans the sale of intoxicating liquors as a beverage, but does not ban their manufacture. The bill passed the Assembly 43 to 25 and the Senate 14 to 8.xxi
1864: First cheese factory in Wisconsin established in Ladoga, Fond du Lac County.xxii
1872: The legislature passed the Graham Law, which again made tavern owners responsible for selling liquor to known drunks. Milwaukee's city attorney challenged the law but the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the legislature had the right to regulate the sale of alcohol. The proposal was named after Alexander Graham of Rock County who proposed the bill.xxiii
1874: The Graham Law was replaced with a milder compromise that encouraged tavern owners and temperance advocates to prevent drunkenness.xxiv
1878: John Bascom attempts to close Madison saloons to undergraduates. He eventually resigns as President over temperance/prohibition related issues.xxv
1880: Thomas Edison receives the patent which includes the principles creating the incandescent lamp.
1887: Wisconsin's first worker safety law adopted. Wisconsin Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) blames “industrial conditions” for children working factories.
1898: Wisconsin Branch of the Anti-Saloon League founded.xxvi
1905: Sweden makes the Gothenburg System compulsory with alcohol sold through state monopoly; stores had “do not sell” lists of prohibited customers.xxvii
1907: Local option proposal fails in Wisconsin Legislature; “residence districts” allowing small areas to vote the area dry are created.xxviii
1907: Legislature bans liquor licenses within one mile of the University of Wisconsin campus.xxix
1907: Wisconsin Legislature increases penalties on alcohol in dry areas.xxx
1908: Women compete in the modern Olympic Games for the first time.
1908: Methodist periodical reported 789 “dry” towns and villages in Wisconsin.xxxi
1909: Legislature banned youth under age 21 entry into saloons, increased penalties for sales to intoxicated patrons and banned sales to those under 18.xxxii
1918: Congress creates dry zones approved around military installations.xxxiii
1918: Bishop Mesmer banned prohibitionist sermons or speeches in Roman Catholic schools, churches or halls.xxxiv
1918: Ratification of the 18th amendment began in 1918. In Wisconsin, a significant portion of the state had already enacted local ordinances to restrict the sale of alcohol. A handbill in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical society announces that 75% of the territory and 44% of population had already voted itself dry.xxxv
1919: Wisconsin ratifies on January 17th (39th state to ratify, 36th needed for adoption). Prohibition takes effect one year later.
1919: June 10, Wisconsin ratifies 19th amendment for Women’s’ Suffrage.
1919: In June, Wisconsin adopts Mulberger Law legalizing 2.5% beer.xxxvi
1919: Norway, Finland and Denmark adopt or expand limited prohibition.
In 1922, Swedes voted against prohibition in a referendum by 51% to 49%. Sweden later rationed alcohol through the Bratt system; eligible adults were given a booklet called a motbok, where each alcohol purchase was noted. Public drunkenness or other alcohol related problems could result in a reduction in the ration by local boards which often included Lutheran clergy. The system was repealed in1955.xxxvii
1926: Wisconsin voters approved a referendum amending the Volsted Act that allowed the manufacture and sale of beer with 2.75 percent alcohol. “In accordance with a resolution passed in both branches of the Wisconsin Legislature, last week, a referendum on 2.75% beer will be submitted to the people of the state in November, 1926.”xxxviii
1929: Voters repealed Wisconsin's prohibition enforcement law, the Severson Act.xxxix
1933: JD Rockefeller, Jr. retains Raymond Fosdick and Albert Scott to study alcohol control systems elsewhere and make recommendations. The team examined systems in Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The final report notes that the goal of any proposed system should be promoting temperance and the development of self-control.xl
1933: After prohibition the number of alcohol manufacturers within the US had dropped from 1345 brewers in 1915 to 31 remaining in the first three months after repeal.xli
1935, Beaulieu vineyards was largest remaining vintner a result of its production of sacramental wine. xlii Distilled spirits production and trade is, largely controlled by three men, one of them, Sam Bronfman, coins the “Drink Moderately” phrase.xliii
1933: Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment for the repeal of prohibition. The U.S. Senate modified Blaine's resolution to satisfy anti-prohibitionists and passed the measure without delay. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified and national prohibition ended.
1933: On April 25, Wisconsin became the second state ratify the 21st amendment to the Constitution, repealing the 18th amendment.
1933: December 5, Prohibition ends when Utah became the 36th state to ratify 21st amendment.
1935: When prohibition ends, just 5 companies controlled 14% of beer production; by 1958 31% of beer production and, by 2009 the 3 remaining companies control 80%.xliv
1975: Alcohol Control Policies in Public Health Perspective, the first publication specifically discussing population levels alcohol consumption as a public health policy, arguing that societal level of alcohol consumption impact outcomes.
1981: Wisconsin’s alcohol-related statutes are consolidated resulting in the creation of Chapter 125.xlv 1982: President Reagan signed bill linking federal highway funds to .10 BAC, administrative revocation, mandatory jail or community service for repeat offenders, better enforcement.
1986: September 1, Wisconsin increases the minimum legal drinking age to 21.
1994: Alcohol Policy and the Public Good is published.
2003: Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, first edition, published.
2004: Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, the first national strategy to reduce underage drinking, is released by the National Academies of Science Institute of Medicine.
2005: First meeting of Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking (ICCPUD) is held and an annual report to Congress summarizing all federal agency activities related to preventing underage alcohol use is initiated.
2007: Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking is released.
2010: The Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse approves and releases Changing Wisconsin’s Alcohol Environment to Promote Safe and Healthy Lives, known as the ACE report.
2010: World Health Organization releases the first global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.
xxvii Svante Nycander, “Ivan Bratt: the man who saved Sweden from prohibition,” Addiction, 1998, 93 (1), pp. 17-25.
xxviii John D. Buenker, “The History of Wisconsin,” Vol. 4, The Progressive Era, 1893-1914, p. 505.
xxixxxix John D. Buenker, “The History of Wisconsin,” Vol. 4, The Progressive Era, 1893-1914, p. 505
xxx John D. Buenker, “The History of Wisconsin,” Vol. 4, The Progressive Era, 1893-1914, p. 505.
xxxixxxi John D. Buenker, “The History of Wisconsin,” Vol. 4, The Progressive Era, 1893-1914, p. 239
xxxii John D. Buenker, “The History of Wisconsin,” Vol. 4, The Progressive Era, 1893-1914, p. 128.
xxxiii Paul Glad, “When John Barleycorn went into hiding in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. #68, #2, winter, 1984-1985 page 128.
xxxiv Paul Glad, “When John Barleycorn went into hiding in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. #68, #2, winter, 1984-1985. "Messmer Held Church Aloof from Dry War,” Milwaukee Sentinel, August 14, 1930, accessed December 30, 2009.
xxxv Wisconsin Historical Society “Wisconsin is going dry!” a handbill explaining the extent of dry-Wisconsin.
xxxvi Paul Glad, “When John Barleycorn went into hiding in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History:” Vol. #68, #2, winter, 1984-1985.
xxxvii Svante Nycander, Ivan Bratt: the man who saved Sweden from prohibition, Addiction, 1998, 93 (1), pp. 17-25.
xxxviii TIME Magazine June 1, 1925, accessed online June 27, 2013
xxxix Glad, Paul, “The History of Wisconsin,” Vol. #5, State Historical Society of Wisconsin 1990, p. 103.
xl Raymond Fosdick and Albert Scott, “Toward Liquor Control,” (Harper & Bros., 1933), The Center for Alcohol Policy, 2011.
xli Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, (Scribner, 2010), p. 358.
xlii Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, (Scribner, 2010), p. 359.
xliii Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, (Scribner, 2010), p. 359.
xlivDaniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, (Scribner, 2010), p. 358.
xlv Legislative Council, Legislation Recodifying the Laws on the Sale and Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages, Report No. 2 to the 1981 Legislature.