From Temperance to Suffrage with WCTU in Bellefonte

Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

 

The Women’ Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) building, also known a Petrikm Hall, on High Street in the Bellefonte Historic District has a fasci­nating history and links to the women’s suffrage movement. Petrikin Hall, as depicted in this 1910 postcard, was completed in 1902 to serve the needs of WCTU’s Bellefonte chapter and was designed to house an auditorium, stage and offices on the first floor. It is named in honor of Marion Petrikin, who bequeathed her family home to WCTU at her death in 1899. According to Sanborn Insurance maps from 1897 and 1904, Petrikin Hall appears to have been built shortly after her death at the site of her former home. Marion devoted her life to teaching at a small private school in Bellefonte and was committed to the WCTU cause.

Bellefonte is also home to a WCTU public fountain, donated to the community by the organization to discourage the use of alcohol by providing free drinking water. Although WCTU fountains were built throughout the United States, only four others have been identified in Pennsylvania in Coudersport, Greensburg, Pen Argyl and Reading.

WCTU was founded in 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio, with chapters or unions soon forming across the country. Within five years it developed a network of more than 1,000 local unions and was well represented in Pennsylvania. WCTU was an outgrowth of the Women’s Crusade of 1873-74, a series of nonviolent protests held in locations across the country against alcohol, using the slogan “For God and Home and Native Land” and espousing the watchwords “agitate, educate, legislate.” Women concerned about the effect of alcohol use on families staged prayer vigils, demonstrations and petition signings at saloon entrances. WCTU continued those tactics and others in its efforts to discourage the use of alcohol.

Although similar efforts to prohibit or limit alcohol consumption in the United States had occurred since the early 1800s, WCTU was the first all-female organiza­tion with such a mission. At the height of the movement in the 1880s, WCTU was the largest women’s organization in the country and was among the first groups to keep a professional lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Originally advocating voluntary abstinence, WCTU later pushed for legislation to prohibit the sale of alcohol.

WCTU membership gave women a path to effect change and speak out for causes important to them. In the late 19th century women had no voice in politics and few legal rights, because they were unable to vote or control property in most states. Crimes against women were seldom reported or prosecuted and divorce laws of the era favored men. Noting the intercon­nectedness of social problems, WCTU followers turned their attention to a variety of issues affecting women and children including public education and kindergar­tens, child labor, prison reform, and universal suffrage.

By 1894 WCTU formally endorsed the women’s suffrage movement, becoming one of many organizations representing different constituencies and strategies to advocate for women’s voting rights. WCTU members pursued voting rights as a way for wives and mothers to better protect their homes and families. Their more traditional view of the role of women helped make suffrage more acceptable than the more radical notion of gender equality proposed by other suffragists. Membership in WCTU gave women the chance to develop skills in leadership, public speaking and public policy, laying the groundwork for their efforts in the long fight for women’s suffrage.

On July 4, 1913, women in Bellefonte participated in the nationally organized March of the Vote, held just a few months after the first suffragist parade in Wash­ington, D.C. The Bellefonte March was led by Anna Keichline (1889-1943), a local suffragist and the first female architect to be registered in Pennsylvania. Suffra­gists worked diligently until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, finally giving women the right to vote in the United States.

 

Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.