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Aug 01

Indicted for Selling Liquor without a License: Graphing the Temperance Movement in Chester County

Posted on August 1, 2019 at 11:16 AM by Chester County Archives

To learn more about Chester County’s role in the temperance movement and how the locals responded to the 18th Amendment, be sure to stop by the Chester County Historical Society and check out their Nothing to See Here: Prohibition in Chester County exhibit on display through January 4, 2020. 

Most researchers who visit the Chester County Archives (CCA) request records relating to a specific family name or an individual township. “I’m researching the Mendenhall family” is a typical comment, or “I’m researching a property in East Coventry Township.” These specific questions allow the researcher and archivist to narrow their search and effectively locate relevant materials. Just imagine if someone simply said, “I want to look at Chester County deeds,” or asked, “Can I see your tax records?” Here are a few numbers that hopefully demonstrate the vastness of the collections at the CCA. 

 Collection Individual Records/Names Notes 
 Deeds, 1681-1866
 145,405 names Deeds in the CCA span 1688-1923. 
 Wills & Administration, 1714-1923
 38,497 individual files  Chester County wills pre-1714 were filed in Philadelphia.
 Quarter Session Indictment Papers, 1691-1890
 33,164 entries  Indictment papers run through 1906.
 Taxes 1765-1799
 158,254 entries  This is less than 40 years. CCA has tax records 1715-1935.
 Tavern Petitions, 1700-1923
 17,223 individual petitions  This reflects all Chester County tavern petitions. 

It would be quite difficult, if not entirely impossible, to search these collections without a specific name, township, or year. Where would you even begin!? To make these vast collections accessible, archivists spend a large part of their day indexing collections. Indexing is the process of extracting data (name, year, township, etc.) from individual records and creating datasets. These datasets, or indexes, help researchers and archivists pinpoint the exact record(s) they need.

1) Data Extraction
Figure 1: Data Extraction 

These datasets, along with modern computing programs, allow us to visualize these vast collections in new ways. For example, here are two representations CCA Wills & Administration files. 

2) wa
Figure 2

Both images represent different ways to visualize the same information. The image on the left probably looks more familiar to us, and we could browse the entire box in about a few hours, but the image on the right can be read and interpreted by computers in seconds—and that creates endless possibilities when you think of entire collections of tens of thousands of records. It would take a lifetime to explore all 33,497 wills at the CCA, but a computer can read that same data almost instantaneously.
To explore this idea further, let’s look at liquor license crime in Chester County—a theme relevant considering the 100th anniversary of Prohibition and the current exhibit on display at the Chester County Historical Society entitled, Nothing to See Here: Prohibition in Chester County. 

3) 1681 Case
Figure 3: Henry Reynolds indicted for selling liquor without a license in 1682. This was the first such case docketed in Chester County. 

As long as Europeans had lived in southeastern Pennsylvania, there had been laws regulating the sale of liquor. The first liquor license-related crime docketed in Chester County occurred in March 1682 when Henry Reynolds appeared in front of the Upland Court to “Answer for his selling strong Liquors by small measure in his house Contrary, to ye Governors & Councells order…” Violations of such laws appear in the index of the Court of Quarter Sessions, 1681-1890.

Collectively, there are 33,164 criminal case entries in the 1681-1890 index (1), and it would be impossible to manually search the stacks for all cases relating to selling liquor. Just imagine an archivist or researcher going folder by folder, box by box looking through each individual file. Thanks to database management systems like Microsoft Access, we can search for the term “liquor” and automatically know between 1681 and 1890 there were 1,286 cases involving the sale of liquor in Chester County.  Without any data organization, that number does not provide much useful information. We can, however, organize that data chronologically to visualize when and how often these liquor cases occurred.

When we graph the 1,286 cases chronologically, then we begin to see a pretty clear pattern.(2) 

4) Liquor Graph

The above visualization shows four separate crimes involving liquor licenses, and all four crimes experienced huge spikes in activity following 1850. This makes sense considering the latter part of the nineteenth century saw increased popularity in temperance—a social movement against the consumption of alcohol. During the period, Chester County was a hub of temperance activity and individuals who illegally sold liquor without a license became an easy target for local activists wanting to minimize the sale of alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), for example, actively accused multiple individuals of selling liquor without a license.

But perhaps the most surprising discovery when we graph the nineteenth-century liquor license cases chronologically is the dramatic spikes of indictments in certain years like 1848, 1857, 1874, 1878, and 1886. If a researcher was looking at an 1874 criminal case that resulted in an indictment for selling liquor without a license, it would be hard to understand how that singular case related to broader trends—it would seem isolated, no way of knowing 1874 was a particularly interesting year. Data organization makes it convenient to automatically know 1874 was a unique year, and charts like the one above introduces new questions like “why was there such a spike in activity for those particular years?”  

During the nineteenth century, liquor licenses were issued on recommendation of the County Court of Quarter Sessions. Therefore, individuals seeking a liquor license petitioned the Court of Quarter Sessions. The Chester County Archives has 17,223 such tavern petitions, and if also organized chronologically, then we clearly see why some years like 1856 and 1874 witnessed so many individuals indicted for selling liquor without a license.

6) Tavern Petitions 

Figure 5 shows a steep decline in accepted tavern petitions post-1850 during the temperance movement. In 1857, the court accepted 55 fewer petitions from just a few years earlier in 1853, and in 1874, the Court only accepted 12 petitions altogether! This can explain the huge spike in “selling liquor without a license” indictments filed for 1857 and 1874.  Local tavern keepers wanted to continue selling liquor for their businesses, yet the Court of Quarter Sessions accepted less than the usual number of petitions. Furthermore, local temperance activists like the members of the WCTU targeted tavern keepers operating without the necessary licenses. 

By organizing the data in these two collections (Quarter Sessions Indictment Papers and Tavern Petitions) chronologically, we see a clear correlation. As the number of accepted tavern petitions decreased, the number of “selling liquor without a license” indictments increased. But we are still left with an obvious question, “Why? What caused the Court of Quarter Sessions to accept fewer petitions in certain years?” 

7)Comparison Graph
Figure 6: Access a larger interactive chart here. 

In 1856 and 1873, Pennsylvania passed new liquor laws that impacted the distribution of liquor licenses. An Act to Regulate the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors passed in March 1856 and strengthened government regulations on the sale and distribution of liquor.  In 1873, Pennsylvania passed a public option law that gave the citizens of the individual counties the right to vote in favor or against the distribution of liquor licenses. (3) In 1873, Chester County voted “dry,” or against the liquor licenses. Municipalities, however, could veto the County vote if their citizens voted accordingly. In the 1873, Sadsbury Township voted in favor of liquor licenses, therefore their residents could continue petitioning the Court of Quarter Sessions. Ten of the twelve tavern petitions accepted in 1874 were all filed before the new law went into effect. The other two came after the new law went into effect, but they both came from Sadsbury Township, a wet township.

8) 1874 Petitions
Figure 7: Tavern petitions filed in 1874. 

The government records at the CCA are filled with data, but sometimes processing all that data can seem overwhelming. Luckily, the data can easily be organized to reveal new findings and raise different historical questions. When records of similar scope are grouped and interpreted together rather than separately, patterns about their time and place are more easily discernible. For instance, genealogists tend to isolate records, and they potentially miss major historical insights into an ancestor’s story. If a genealogist learns about an ancestor who was indicted for selling liquor without a license in 1874, unless they relate that singular case to broader trends, then they potentially miss the fact that 1874 was an exceptional year and that their ancestor, like so many in Chester County, was impacted by the temperance movement. 


1) The Chester County Court of Quarter Sessions Indictment Papers go through 1906, but at the current moment, the records have only been indexed through 1890.

2) For the purpose of examining the nineteenth century temperance movement, we ignored the eighteenth century and only graphed 1800-1890. 


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