Neal S. Dow House
Neal S. Dow House
General Neal S. Dow
Neal S. Dow House Circa 1900
19th century cartoon critical of alcohol consumption from Belfast, Maine
The Rum Room in Portland City Hall
Backstory and Context
History of Liquor in 19th Century Portland
The 1820s was a monumental time of reform in New England. Throughout the entire region, strict religious attitudes adopted by the Puritans began to wane, and a more Protestant theology took hold. In the Protestant view, anyone could reach perfection in life and reach Heaven upon death.
This idea paved the way for reforms regarding the abolition of slavery (slavery was already abolished in Northern States in 1804, though abolition movements moved toward abolishing slavery in the South), the growth of the fight for woman’s suffrage, and increased efforts to care for the less fortunate.
At the same time, New England was experiencing a growing problem with alcohol. Per capita consumption of liquor reached its peak in 1830, and it wasn’t uncommon to see large tubs of rum on Portland sidewalks. These tubs included a dipper so that people passing by could indulge.
During that time as well, the church bells would ring a 10am, 2pm, and 4pm signaling rum breaks for workers. From lower Congress Street to Munjoy Hill, there was an estimated 300 businesses selling rum, gin, brandy, and other alcoholic drinks along the one-mile stretch of road comprising the business district. Many working men were also paid in the form of daily rum rations.
According to Neal S. Dow’s memoirs, “It was the rule to quit work at 11 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon to drink. . . . Many grocer's shops kept rum punch prepared in a tub, sometimes on the sidewalk, just as lemonade is to be seen now on the Fourth of July.”1
History of Neal S. Dow
Neal S. Dow was born in Portland in 1804. His parents were prominent Quakers in the community, and Neal followed his father’s tannery trade and eventually grew to become one of Portland’s wealthiest and most important leather manufacturers.
Dow’s adversarial relationship with alcohol came early in his life, and as a young man, he volunteered to be a firefighter to get out of militia duty, noting the reputation of the militia to include rambunctious drunken parties. Dow was also able to convince his employees to eliminate the indulgence of alcohol at the annual celebration, and by 1827, Dow and a few other concerned community members founded the Main Temperance Society.
Dow continued his temperance work, and by 1851, as Mayor of Portland, he crafted and helped pass the Maine Liquor Law, also known as the Maine Law of 1851. The passing of this law stands as one of the first laws of the temperance movement.
By 1855, 12 other states had joined Maine in prohibiting liquor. That same year, the Portland Rum Riots left one dead and seven wounded, and many have criticized Dow for ordering the militia to fire upon the rioters. It should be noted that the large supply of Rum stored at city hall was gathered by Dow, and though the rum’s purpose was technically for the medical community, it nonetheless instigated the riot.
During the Civil War, Dow would eventually be promoted to the rank of brigadier general, and he would continue advocating temperance throughout the 19th century. In the 1880 election, Dow ran for president under the Prohibition Party and gained 10,000 votes, but as a minor candidate, this was equivalent of 0.11% of the popular vote.2
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
Dow lived at the Neal S. Dow House for 67 years, and it was the central location in Portland for the temperance movement and other social issues. Upon Dow’s death in 1897, the house was given to the local chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Formed in the 1870s in Illinois to push prohibition, this Union peaked by the 1940s with upwards of 500,000 members across the United States. Nowadays, there are about 4,000 to 5,000 members across the U.S., and the Neal S. Dow House continues to the house Portland’s local chapter to this day.3
The Neal S. Dow House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and titled as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1974.