Beer Wagons, Water Wagons, Temperance Wagons and Bandwagons - a Sobering History and Etymology of Getting on and Falling off "the Wagon"
The idiom, to “go on the wagon,” means to give up drinking alcohol. Someone who has gone “on the wagon,” but starts drinking again, is said to have, “fallen off the wagon.” Both idioms, “getting on” and “falling off” the wagon, are also used with respect to any habit, addiction, or routine activity. “Do you still exercise every day?” “No, I fell off the wagon.” Since wagons and alcohol seem to have little to do with one another, the literal meaning underlying the idiom is opaque.
The original form of the phrase, however, is less opaque. When the phrase was first introduced (1896), and for many years thereafter, the phrase was generally rendered as, “to go on the water wagon.” Since the phrase was used to refer to the act of giving up alcohol, the “water wagon” alludes to the alternative – water. Going “on the water-wagon” meant to drink water, instead of alcohol.
But why go on a wagon? Why not just go on water? In 1896, the idiom, to jump on, or get on, the “bandwagon” was relatively new. It was coined in about 1884, and was widely used, in all parts of the country, by 1890. Going on or getting on the “water-wagon” appears to be an alcohol-specific modification of the then-relatively new idiom.
[(See my earlier post about the History and Etymology of "Jump on the Bandwagon")]
The substitution of “water-wagon” for “bandwagon” may be an allusion to temperance wagons, used by temperance societies to spread their anti-alcohol message, and/or water-wagons, which were a common sight on the street in 1895. “Water-wagon” may also be a sly nod to “beer wagons,” which were also a fixture on city streets in the 1890s. To “get on the water-wagon” was to give up alcohol, and jump on the “bandwagon” of the temperance movement, and to drink water from water wagons, as opposed to beer from beer-wagons. Early humor pieces describe, and illustrate, people climbing aboard metaphoric “water-wagons,” much like getting on (and falling off ) metaphoric “bandwagons”:
The water wagon started on its annual trip at midnight Wednesday [(New Year’s Eve)] and up until a late hour this morning was traveling well under weight. When the wagon started it was loaded to the guards. Men were struggling for positions on the seats, the roof was crammed with passengers and a friendly competition was held for the reins and the brake of the vehicle.
. . . A trip over the path of the wagon would have been ruinous to shoes and dangerous to bicyclists. The path was literally strewn with broken glass and demolished bottles. Those fat, square-faced bottles in which is kept, and more often poured out, gin, were there. The long, thin-necked bottles familiar to the young man who tries to be a good fellow and spends his daily pay for one of them were there. Large “schooners,” known to the man who believes in quantity and is not insistent on quality, blocked the road in places and the thin, shell glasses from which “here’s luck” is drawn helped to add to the litter.
The Indianapolis Journal, January 2, 1903, page 8, column 4.
Origin of the Phrase
W. L. Baby Says It Is in Better Condition than Ever Before.
“The bicycle business is in better condition to-day than it has ever been,” said W. L. Baby, of Chicago, at the Denison last night. . . .
“The bicycle is no longer a fad – it is a business proposition with all purchasers, and for this reason the market is in its present gratifying condition.”
Mr. Baby is well known in this city, as he makes frequent trips here and has been in his present line for several years. He enjoys the distinction of being the man who originated the much-bandied phrase expressive of total abstinence, “on the water wagon.”
The Indianapolis Journal, December 5, 1902, page 4, column 4.
The article does not prove that W. L. Baby coined the expression, but the article has the ring of plausibility – if not truth. The article is about “W. L. Baby of Chicago.” The United Stated Census lists William L. Baby (b. 1875) and his wife Evalyn living in Cook County, Illinois in 1900. In the article, W. L. Baby was a businessman from Chicago, visiting Indianapolis to talk about bicycle sales. A separate article, written just a few weeks earlier, relates a story told by William L. Baby, a traveling salesman, and how he and another salesman relentlessly teased a newlywed couple on the train between Martin and Wabash, Indiana. Earlington (Kentucky) Bee, October 23, 1902.
It may be telling that the writer of the story does not question the truth of the assertion that Baby coined the phrase. The story merely reports that Baby, “enjoys the distinction.” There is no suggestion that Baby claims the distinction or boasts about it; it is presented almost as though it were a well-established fact. In 1902, the idiom, “get on the water-wagon,” was a well-established slang phrase that had regularly appeared in print, in all corners of the country, for more than six years. Being associated with the origins of the phrase may well have been a source of pride for the person involved, and may have been known to those around him.
But W. L. Baby was an admitted practical joker who tormented a blushing bride and her new husband on the train for several hours. Was his claim to be the originator of the phrase also a practical joke? Or was he connected in some way to the Chicago-based novelist who first exposed a national audience to the expression?
We may never know for sure, but Baby's biography is similar to that of the main character in the book that introduced the phrase to the masses; the book that includes the first-known appearance of the phrase in print.
Getting On the Water Wagon
The novel, Checkers: a Hard Luck Story, was released in June, 1896.[i] By October, 1896, it was in its fourth printing.[ii] The book was well received on both coasts. The book’s colorful, slangy language was one of its key selling-points:
This was Checkers, penniless, slangy and illiterate; and yet he possessed a charm which made a friend of a business man, whose life was quite outside the gambling circle with which Checkers was familiar.
The San Francisco Call, July 26, 1896, page 23, column 2;
“Abounds in the most racy and picturesque slang.” – N. Y. Recorder
“If I had to ride from New York to Chicago on a slow train, I should like half a dozen books as gladsome as ‘Checkers,’ and I could laugh at the trip.” – N. Y. Commercial Advertiser.
The Sun (New York), October 3, 1896, page 7, column 5;
“Checkers” himself is simply delightful. He handles an enormous vocabulary of slang with a more expert tongue even than that of his predecessor, “Chimmie Fadden,” and for individual cleverness he certainly takes the palm away from our friend of the Bowery.
The Saint Paul Globe, August 30, 1896, page 14, column 2.
One example of the “slangy” language in the book is the idiom, to be “on the water-wagon.” This is the earliest-known appearance of the idiom in print:
Checkers felt apprehensive for Arthur, when he noticed three different glasses at each plate; but Arthur took early occasion to state that he was “on the water-wagon” . . . .
Henry Blossom, Checkers: a Hard Luck Story, Chicago, Herbert S. Stone & Co. (1896).
Ironically, or appropriately, or both, the author, Henry Blossom, who was born in St. Louis, dedicated the book to another favorite son of St. Louis, Ellis Wainwright, heir to a brewery fortune and president of the St. Louis Brewing Company. You heard me right, the man to whom the book in which the idiom, to be “on the water-wagon,” made its national debut was the president of a brewery. You can’t write this stuff.
If W. L. Baby did, in fact, have a role in coining the phrase, perhaps he was the model for the title role of Checkers:
“Checkers” is too absolutely life-like a character to have been invented. He was obviously studied from the living model with patience and enthusiasm, and Mr. Blossom is to be congratulated both upon his choice of a character to transcribe and his accuracy of method in making the transcription.
The Saint Paul Globe, August 30, 1896.
Did Henry Blossom know William L. Baby and base the character on him? It's possible. Checkers was published in Chicago six years before William L. Baby is known to have been a traveling salesman from Chicago. The title-character, Checkers, was a down-and-out racetrack “tout” from Chicago, who comes into an unexpected inheritance, marries a good woman, and moves into a big house; only to see his wife die, his bank fail, and lose all of his money. After he loses his money, Checkers finds work – as a TRAVELLING SALESMAN based out of Chicago.
Just a coincidence? You be the judge. But all of the evidence is consistent with the 1902 report that W. L. Baby “enjoyed the distinction” of having coined the phrase, “on the water-wagon.”
But whether he coined the phrase or not, its inclusion in a popular novel that found success all across the country introduced to idiom to a wide audience. Five years later, the idiom appeared in print regularly in all corners of the country.
But wide distribution is not the only ingredient necessary for a successful idiom. The idiom must be useful, evocative, and resonate with the people who use it, or it would just die out. Bandwagons, beer wagons, water wagons, temperance wagons and the relatively new idiom, “get on the bandwagon,” likely contributed to the quick acceptance and rapid dissemination of the new idiom.
Wagons of the 1890s
To be on the water wagon is to avoid alcohol. The “water-wagon” seems to be a non-alcoholic counter-point to the common beer wagon. Beer wagons were a common sight on city streets in those days. Budweiser still uses an old-fashioned beer wagon, drawn by a team of majestic Clydesdale horses in its advertising campaigns. In 1911, when motorized trucks were replacing horse-drawn beer wagons, Budweiser was already striking a nostalgic chord with its less than majestic, eight-mule team beer wagon.
|Budweiser Beer Wagon - The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), August 30, 1911, page 3.|
Water wagons were also a familiar sight in the 1890s. Water wagons were used for a variety of purposes: to water-down unpaved streets to inhibit dust; to deliver water to steam-powered machinery; to transport water to homes where water main distribution service was not available; and to provide water to thirsty workers at job sites without running water. Soda water wagons, used to transport bottled soda water to homes, restaurants, and bars, were a frequent target of petty-thief bottle snatchers; stealing a soda water bottle (the empties could be redeemed for cash at a junk dealer) was seen as a sort of gateway-crime for young street urchins.[iii]
|Water Wagon - Omaha Daily Bee, December 28, 1902|
Water wagons were everywhere.
|"Peerless" Steam Engine Water Wagons|
Water wagons, water wagons everywhere, but not a drop of alcohol to drink. At least that is how the temperance societies and missions like the Salvation Army would have had it. Temperance wagons and mission wagons, like Salvation Army wagons, were also seen on city streets in the 1890s; cruising the streets, seeking to reform sinners and drinkers.
|Salvation Army Wagon|
Finally, the metaphoric “bandwagon” was also heard on the streets in the 1890s. The idiom, “get on (or jump on) the bandwagon,” first heard in 1884, had become a common, widely known idiom by the mid-1890s.
|Bandwagon - the Ringling Circum Museum|
During the late 1890s, when the temperance movement was in full swing (full prohibition would become the law of the land in 1920), anti-alcohol mission wagons and temperance wagons were frequently used to drum up support, and to encourage drinkers to give up the “demon rum.” The wagons plied the streets, sometimes with a Salvation Army band, or the like, onboard, preaching the gospel of temperance with religious zeal:
Mr. J. J. Blick, in his address, said he hoped sincerely that the temperance orders could get a mission wagon, and like the Central Union Mission, go and preach the gospel of temperance and grace in the highways and alleys.
The Washington Times (DC), May 27, 1895, page 6, column 2.
References to “temperance wagons” appeared in print as early as 1885.[iv] There were also “temperance wagons” in England:
English Good Templars are fitting out temperance wagons and sending them off on tours through Great Britain. Good speakers and singers go with the wagons, who hold meetings and distribute literature wherever possible. The idea is an excellent one.
The Anderson Intelligencer (Anderson Court House, South Carolina), January 29, 1891, page 1, column 7.
A story of a day-in-the-life of a “habitual loafer” described a typical mission wagon on a Sunday afternoon (when the bars were closed) in Washington, DC:
The sound of many voices singing – most of the female voices – came floating through the air, and four horses dashed in the space drawing an immense wagon full of men and women, old and young.
In the midst of the crowd the horses were hauled up, the wagon stopped, a red-whiskered man jumped out and scattered printed circulars with hymns on them among the assembled multitude. Every one in the wagon was singing. The habitual loafer rushed ahead of the rest, and got close to the wagon. At first he stood on his tiptoes. Then he got on the wheel, and his eyes rested on a young singer, who sang very loud and with her face in her book while his gaze was upon her, but stopped singing and followed his every movement when he turned away for a moment. Sometimes their eyes met. They all sang: “Glory, glory, how the angels sing” . . . he sang with peculiar impressiveness. The singing ceased. The boy t the organ in the back end of the wagon leaned his elbow on the keys, and the red-whiskered man began to address the people. The habitual loafer stood watching the angel who peeped at him from behind her book.
As the sun threw one last blush over the maiden’s cheek and dropped down behind Arlington the four horses were whipped up, and the wagon, glorious in song, passed out of sight down the street. The habitual loafer placed his hat over his eyes and lost himself in the crowd.
Evening Star (Washington DC), October 2, 1886, page 2, column 2.
The image of a temperance wagon, driving through town, recruiting followers like a circus bandwagon recruits customers, naturally lent itself to the “jump on the bandwagon” idiom:
The band of the temperance wagon is moving, and it is better to move along with the procession instead of meeting it and be run over.
Phillipsburg (Kansas) Herald, October 5, 1901, page 3, column 5.
Getting on the “water-wagon,” fits the same mold, but takes it one step further. It replaces “temperance wagon” with “water-wagon,” to create a humorous allusion that ties up bandwagons, temperance wagons, and water-wagons in a pretty little bow, evocative of the purpose of temperance wagons, the metaphorical “bandwagon” of the temperance movement, and the image of the common water-wagon.
As the years passed, water distribution systems displaced water wagons, internal-combustion engines eventually replaced steam engines, and motorized delivery trucks replaced the horse-drawn water-wagons. Eventually, the word “water” was dropped; perhaps because it was too wordy, or perhaps because no one could remember what a “water-wagon” was. The surviving idiom, “to go on/fall off the wagon” left later generations to wonder how getting on or falling off wagons related to drinking alcohol.
Now you know.
The “water-wagon” idiom was quickly circulated to all corners of the United States. Temperance, prohibition, and other long-forgotten alcohol-related issues were at the forefront of domestic politics at the time. Many people considered joining the temperance movement and giving up alcohol was on many people’s minds. To “go on the water-wagon” provided a handy, efficient, evocative way to express it.
The expression was soon seen in print in all corners of the country:
The minute I got into that new sack suit I fell off the water wagon with an awful bump, although I hadn’t touched a drink for thirty-seven days. Oh, but I got a lovely bun on! That’s the last.
The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia), December 1, 1898, page 4.
“You don’t say?” said Kennedy, throwing ice out of the shaker. “I kinder thought you ought to get on the water cart. Tough ain’t it, to have the shakes, and not to have had the drinks that caused them?”
Kansas City Journal (Missouri), November 19, 1899, page 7 (crediting the Chicago Inter-Ocean).
If getting “on the water-wagon” was to stop drinking, “falling off the water-wagon” naturally referred to starting up again:
I also caught a rumor of an accident: some one had fallen “off a water wagon.” On inquiring into the disaster I learned that the extent of the misfortune was that the person in question had taken to drinking again.
The San Francisco Call, December 3, 1899, page 23, column 5.
The idiom had taken root and continued to grow. In the early 1900s, several newspapers used the “getting on” and “getting off” of the “water-wagon” imagery in long, comic stories making light of the common practice of swearing off alcohol for the New Year, only to start drinking again – often during the same New Year’s Eve party. The text of the articles, and images accompanying some of the articles, support the connection between “bandwagon” and “water-wagon”:
A good old lady who reads the daily papers and is not versed in modern parlance, especially slang, wants to know what a “water wagon” is! Her attention was called to the matter by recurrent remarks about a ride on said wagon along about January 1, 1903. What in the world any man wanted to ride on a sprinkling cart for she couldn’t understand, especially in zero weather. She wonders, therefore, if there isn’t some other kind of a water wagon! . . .
We understand, however, that a water-wagon is what drinkers say they are on when they have quit drinking. . . .
Many a man who has pickled himself in whisky and delirium tremens in the days of your, might have been saved by a water wagon, then undiscovered. To get onto the wagon all one has to do is to stop drinking at midnight December 31 and hang on all through the year. The water wagon is like perpetual motion. It never stops. The man who rides on the wagon and stops to take a drink always gets left. This is one of the rules and regulations. A water wagon is a good thing. It should be popular all the year round as it is January 1. Usually it starts out heavily loaded like a Chicago street car the day before Christmas, but when it arrives at the Rubicon of the new year there is left only the driver and a few “dead soldiers” [(empty bottles)] This is easy on the horses, but it is confounded hard on the passengers. “Long live the water wagon!”
The Coalville Times (Coalville, Utah), January 23, 1903, page 3.
The water-wagon silliness reached its apex (or nadir) in the New York Evening World at the start of 1905. For several days leading up to the New Year, and for several days after, cartoonist T. E. Powers painstakingly “built” a “water-wagon” for his readers to get on as part of their New Year’s resolution. He tricked it out daily, with more-and-more seating and more-and-more accessories. The elaborate “water-wagon” looked like a bandwagon, but with rows of seats arrayed atop a large, cylindrical water tank, instead of the standard, big, boxy wagon. Despite his best efforts, the ride was a bumpy one, and most of the passengers fell “off the water-wagon” within just a few days:
|The Evening World (New York), December 26, 1904|
|The Evening World (New York), December 28, 1904|
|The Evening World (New York), December 29, 1904|
|The Evening World (New York), December 30, 1904|
|The Evening World (New York), December 31, 1904|
|The Evening World (New York), January 2, 1905|
|The Evening World (New York), January 4, 1905|
The Water-Wagon Bandwagon
If "get on the water wagon" was a temperance-specific modification of the earlier idiom, "get on the bandwagon," the two wagons came full circle in 1917, when political opportunists sensed the prevailing "dry" mood of the country, and jumped aboard the water-wagon bandwagon, and rode it to the passage of, and right through to the ratification of, the 18th Amendment to the United States' Constitution - prohibition. William Jennings Bryant, who had been driving the water-wagon bandwagon, could not quite ride it all of the way to the White House:
|The Washington Times (Washington DC), September 22, 1917, page 16.|
I imagine that when W. L. Baby, Herbert Blossom, or whoever else may have coined the idiom, to get on "the water wagon," in 1896, they probably never expected so many people to jump on the "water-wagon" "bandwagon," or that their turn of phrase would last for so long. "Jump on the wagon" has outlasted beer wagons, water-wagons, temperance wagons, and even wagons, generally, and survives today, more than a century later.
The water-wagon is still a safe haven for many people to go when alcohol threatens to get the better of them. Thank Baby, or Blossom, or whoever else, for providing a quick and efficient means to express it. It's even quicker now; it's just a plain old wagon.
But don't fall off!!!
[i] The San Francisco Call, May 24, 1896, page 23, column 6. “H. S. Stone & Co. of Chicago announce for publication early in June a story whose title is, ‘The Boy Called Checkers, a Hard-luck Story.”
[ii] The Sun (New York), October 3, 1896, page 7, column 5.
[iii] Jacob A. Riis, The Making of Thieves in New York, The Century Illustrated, volume 49, number 1, page 109. A grocer’s stand is handy, or a pie wagon; better still, a soda water wagon. The bottle is worth so much cash at the junkshop. The driver’s back is turned. The boy “swipes” one. It is not a very great crime, but it is the stepping stone to many greater.
[iv] The Abbeville (South Carolina) Press and Banner, October 14, 1885, page 1, column 8. An English paper once published a picture of the wagon of the state drawn one way by twelve horses and the other way by eight, and our temperance wagon can show the same phenomenon.