Prohibition in Oregon

Drawing of turkish nobleman drinking whisky. A servant stands to his side with a tray with a bottle resting on it.
Simmond's Nabob Whiskey label 1879. See more labels in the Liquor and Beer Trademark Gallery.
Even before Oregon became part of the United States its citizens tried to control the manufacture and sale of liquor. In spite of this effort, a thriving commerce developed to import, brew, distill and dispense a variety of products. By the late 1800s the temperance movement forced the question of a ban on liquor to the forefront of the nation's social debate. By 1916 Oregonians began to live with prohibition. The state law took effect 3 years before the ratification of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned liquor nationally. But soon enterprising individuals -and organized crime- filled the void with illegal stills, rumrunning and speakeasies. Oregon law enforcement geared up to respond to the challenge but couldn't keep up. Eventually, Oregon and the rest of the nation tired of the experiment. By 1933 voters repealed both the state law and the national constitutional amendment.

A Thriving Liquor Commerce

In the decades before prohibition Oregonians slaked their collective thirst with local brews and spirits. They also chose from a variety of concoctions imported from other states and countries. The freewheeling capitalism of this period created a need for liquor manufacturers to differentiate their products from those of competitors. To do this they turned to artists who designed colorful bottle labels meant to evoke the beauty of the location or the romance of an imagined time or place. The tired and thirsty were enticed to leave troubles of the day behind.

See trademark labels held by the Oregon State Archives in the Liquor and Beer Trademark Gallery >

Liquor Control, Temperance and the Call for Prohibition

Most early laws relating to liquor control were intended to prevent Native Americans from possessing liquor. In June 1844, Oregon's provisional government enacted a prohibition law designed to "prevent the introduction, sale and distillation of ardent spirits in Oregon." This law remained in effect until September 1849, when the territorial legislature repealed it:

Rather than total prohibition, Oregon passed laws to regulate liquor sales. These tended to specify licensing criteria for the selling of liquor, and in some cases banned the sale of alcohol in areas near construction projects and churches, or to minors and the intoxicated.
Drawing of axe breaking through door to attack cartoon charater corn, wheat, grapes, barley, potato and hops.
A Women's Christian Temperance Union axe breaks through a door in an attack on the liquor industry, represented by Oregon agricultural products that would be harmed by prohibition. This portion of a 1913 cartoon is from a Salem Welfare League broadside opposing prohibition. (Colorized. Original image courtesy Oregon State Library)

The last decades of the 1800s saw the temperance movement gain attention in the United States. Led by the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League, public displays against establishments that sold liquor (particularly saloons) became commonplace. The fame of such figures as the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation, who entered saloons and smashed liquor containers and other paraphernalia, brought the temperance movement to the attention of the nation, including the citizens of Oregon.

The temperance movement was joined by the equal suffrage movement in an attempt to enact both as needed social reforms. But the two movements were unable to divide their focus between the issues. Each viewed the other as inhibiting their adoption in Oregon and the nation. In Oregon, Abigail Scott Duniway blamed the prohibitionists for many of suffrage's defeats at the polls. By 1912, when women's suffrage was enacted into law in Oregon, the movements were split.

Mock ballot says "morals and Business suffer in every prohibition town" and encourages a vote "no" for prohibition.
Mock ballot against prohibition by the Salem Welfare League.
Enlarge image Mock ballot transcript
(Oregon State Library subject vertical files on prohibition1913)
During the late 1800s the temperance movement continued to agitate the state government for prohibition and liquor control reform. In November 1887 Oregon voters defeated a proposed amendment to the state constitution to institute state-wide prohibition. Saloons were by law allowed to operate in Oregon by a measure approved in November 1889.

On June 6, 1904 Oregon voters approved the local option act. This law established that a successful county-wide vote for prohibition would make each precinct in the county subject to the ban on alcohol. In 1905 the Legislative Assembly enacted statutes enabling the implementation of the local option law. That same year the city of Hood River enacted prohibition by local option election. Subsequent challenges to the local option law during 1905-1907 resulted in local option being upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. During the following years, various counties and cities enacted prohibition via use of the local option.

Supporters of prohibition envisioned a society with less crime, domestic abuse, neglect and accidents. They believed people whose lives had revolved around saloons and drinking would be transformed into better spouses, parents and workers. Freed from the debilitating effects of alcohol, these people would rise to a higher moral plane and become more productive citizens. As a result, the nation would grow stronger.

Industries and individuals standing to lose from prohibition mounted a spirited counteroffensive. They cited economic hardships to farmers of such crops as wheat, potatoesand hops:
Salem Welfare League poster opposing prohibition​ (Oregon State Library subject vertical files on prohibition, 1913)

Owners and employees of breweries, distilleries, saloons and related businesses foresaw doom. Some opponents predicted that a criminal element would fill the void left by the loss of legitimate businesses related to liquor. On Nov. 3, 1914, five years prior to national prohibition, the voters of Oregon passed an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale or advertisement of intoxicating liquor:
Proclamation by Gov. Oswald West declaring passage of constitutional amendment relating to prohibition (Secretary of State Official Documents, Dec. 14, 1914)

In 1915 the Legislative Assembly, via the Anderson Act, enacted legislation implementing statewide prohibition. The law became effective Jan. 1, 1916. Less than a year later, in November 1916, voters defeated a proposed state constitutional amendment to permit the sale of beer. In 1917 the Oregon Supreme Court upheld prohibition in a challenge to the new law's constitutionality.