Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Kiss of Prohibition: “Lips that Touch Liquor…”


The Demon of Rum is about in the land,
His victims are falling on every hand,
The wise and the simple, the brave and the fair,
No station too high for his vengeance to spare.
O women, the sorrow and pain is with you,
And so be the joy and the victory, too;
With this for your motto, and succor divine,
The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.
 “The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.”  The last line of an anonymous poem from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) became a popular mantra in the efforts by prohibitionists to stop all sales of alcoholic beverages in the United States: It seemingly was a threat by young women to their young men to stay away from the booze or skip the kissing routine.

The origins are said to go back at least to March 1873 and perhaps as early as early as 1869.  The mantra of the “drys” has been cited in newspaper articles, magazines and books;  depicted on placards, signs, and needle point;  and repeated in poems and songs.  “Lips that touch liquor…” has reached iconic stature and as such has attracted more than its share of parodies.  Featured here are a few of its manifestations.

Above is the most attractive of the examples.  It shows a very comely young woman with a “Gibson Girl” hair style, olive skin, and ruby “bee sting” lips.  This lady is eminently kissable.   With this lass the WCTU went straight to the heart of potential swains.  The second manifestation of a abstemious young woman, while still attractive, lacks the impact of the other.  Origin unknown, it appeared on placards and signs of varying sizes and colors.  Was the one left a luggage tag?   A third young woman with the “lips” sign makes no attempt to be seductive.  She seems aggressively angry about the situation.

Songwriters Sam Booth and George T. Evans dedicated a “Temperance” ditty to the “Woman’s Crusade Against Liquor Throughout the World”  and fittingly gave it the “Lips” title.  Among the lyrics were the following:  

Let war be your watchword from shore unto shore,
Rum and his legions shall reign no more,
And write on your bonnets in letters that shine,
The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.

Write on your bonnets?  Booth and Evans must have been taking a snort or two to have thought up that idea.   The prohibitionist sentiments naturally raised the “wet” opposition to parody the idea.  The most enduring images involved very unattractive and sour looking women endorsing the “lips” idea.  One photograph that seems timeless in its appeal has a group of ten chastely dressed matrons beneath the sign.  They clearly are making themselves look as “un-kissable” as possible.  My attention is drawn to the woman in the center with a large hat and what appears to be serape around her shoulders.  Her eyes seem to indicate that her lips might have been on a bottle not long before.
A second riffle on that theme was a postcard with a line drawing of another singularly ugly female flaunting the slogan.  It probably was inevitable that men in the temperance crowd would also become comic relief.  In the 1908 photo postcard shown here a gent with an “anti-saloon” pennant and apparently castigating “lips that touch whiskey,” is standing in front of a liquor store and appears from his crossed eyes to have been doing some imbibing.

The Mississippi Riverboat Owners Assn. obviously thought a “Lips” sign would be found hilarious among their patrons.   Rightly so since it would have been a rare riverboat that did not sell or serve alcohol aboard the craft, along with other pleasures like gambling and prostitution, neither of which the WCTU would have approved.
The “Lips” notion continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted up to the present day.  Note the greeting card that includes the enigmatic message, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch my liquor,” and a puzzling drawing of a woman pouring drops of liquid out of her boot while standing over a supine male figure.  I am still puzzling over this offering from “Someecards.” This outfit carries an entire line of greeting cards featuring drinking.
Just when we thought the world was safe from the prohibitionists, images like the one below appear.  This young woman with a clenched fist and snarlingly face appears to be representing a new generation that harks back to the heyday of the WCTU.  Marching in a parade somewhere, she has adopted their mantra and made it her own.
As a close to this examination of the theme, quoting a second poem seems fitting.  This one came from the pen of versifier George W. Young.  Appropriately, he entitled it “Lips That Touch Liquor.”  This ditty reads as follows:

You are coming to woo me, but not as of yore,
When I hastened to welcome your ring at the door;
For I trusted that he who stood waiting me then,
Was the brightest, the truest, the noblest of men,
Your lips, on my own, when they printed "Farewell,"
Had never been soiled by the "beverage of hell;"
But they come to me now with the bacchanal sign,
And the lips that touch liquor must never touch mine."


  1. I Googled and found this researching George W. Young's poem "The Lips that Touch Liqour," a yellowed copy of which was found my 4th Great-Grandfather Rev. Thomas Harper's belongings. It ran in the "Inquirer" which I believe was Philadelphia Inquirer. He passed Oct. 23, 1900, so the clip predates that.

  2. Mark: Thanks for contributing this about the original poem by Young. The slogan took off with a life of its own. Rev. Harper might even have used it in a sermon.