Using Primary Sources: Wide Open Town

Essential Question

How do historians use historical images to understand complex political movements?



In this lesson, students learn about the Temperance Movement and New York in the 1890s by watching an excerpt from the Bootlegger’s Notebook, investigation and examining period images, including political cartoons, posters and illustrations. Students then debate the merits of the Temperance Movement and reflect on how historians use period images to reconstruct the past.


Related Episode: Bootlegger’s Notebook

Upon discovering a small, leather-bound journal with hand-written instructions for making large quantities of popular liquors such as gin, whisky, and rum, the great-nephew of a successful entrepreneur wonders if his uncle earned his money as a Prohibition era bootlegger. In this episode, host Elyse Luray finds the facts behind this mysterious journal. 


Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is best suited for grades 6-8, but could be adapted for grades 9-12. Suggestions for adaptation include: include further primary and secondary sources for students to analyze (see Resources); assign students a side in the debate (pro or con) over Temperance and Prohibition before they inspect the documents, and lead a debate in which students must use proof from their research.


Suggested Unit of Study

This lesson is appropriate for American History units covering the Progressive Era and the Industrial Revolution.





A Wide Open Town

In this clip, cocktail expert David Wondrich describes New York saloons in the 1890s.

In this episode excerpt, cocktail expert David Wondrich describes New York in the 1890s as a “wide open town.” The culture of saloons led to many patrons drinking far too much alcohol and the saloon owners sometimes serving wood alcohol—a potentially lethal drink—to satisfy the demand. Wondrich explains the “Bootlegger’s Notebook” is really a compounding notebook that includes recipes saloon owners followed to make cheap versions of popular spirits. 



To view Alcohol in the 1890s slideshow, click here.

To print slideshow, click here.



Analyzing Primary Sources 


Estimated Time Required
1-2 class periods


Long before the Eighteenth Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, the Temperance Movement was advocating for the abolition of alcohol. The members of the movement believed alcohol contributed to domestic violence, crime, poverty and a decline in “public morals.” In the 1890s, The Prohibition Party, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Anti-Saloon League were winning small victories across the country. County by county and state by state, local governments banned alcohol. But there were many places, such as New York City, where alcoholic lawlessness prevailed over the protestations of the Temperance Movement.



Make enough copies of the Analyzing Primary Sources reproducible so that each student has at least  four copies (make copies front and back to save paper).

Make at least one copy of each image from the image slideshow, Alcohol in the 1890s. Arrange the images around the room in stations.


Discussion Questions

Have students watch the video A Wide Open Town while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion: 

  • Why does it mean that New York was a “wide open town” in the 1890s?
  • What were some dangers of drinking alcohol in the 1890s?
  • The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was one organization that wanted to ban all alcohol. Based on what we learn about New York City in this clip, why do you think they felt that way?
  • What did the Pure Food and Drug Act do?



After showing the video A Wide Open Town from the History Detectives episode Bootlegger’s Notebook, review with students the difference between primary and secondary sources. If students need further background on primary and secondary sources, show them the video How to Analyze Primary Sources, which is featured in the online game History Detectives Laboratory. You may additionally refer to The Library of Congress Teachers’ Page and Princeton’s Reference Desk for resources.

Explain to the class that they will be examining primary sources related to the Temperance Movement. The images in Alcohol in the 1890s include:

  • Image 1: Illustration showing Temperance advocates helping a drunk man but scorning a woman
  • Image 2: Photograph of Temperance Meeting in Kansas
  • Image 3: Poster of Carrie Nation, famous proponent of Prohibition
  • Image 4: Illustration of upscale saloon
  • Image 5: Photograph of rough-and-tumble saloon
  • Image 6: Illustration of “The Downhill Road” of consuming alcohol 

Using one image from the set, guide students through the steps on the Analyzing Primary Sources reproducible. Examine, Think, Question, and Draw Conclusions. If you have the Internet available in your classroom, you may want to allow students to answer their questions as they inspect the documents. As they inspect the rest of the images, encourage students to look for answers to their questions about the sources by consulting appropriate secondary sources (see Resources). Use the following questions as a guide for observation:

  • Examine: What does this image show you about the 1890s?
  • Examine: How does this image portray the drinking of alcohol?
  • Think: Who made this image? What were they hoping to accomplish?
  • Think: Does it support the goals of the Temperance Movement?


Encourage the students to Think Like a Historian. Prompt students to use the following steps when investigating the documents:

  • Sourcing: Who made this source? Where did it come from?
  • Contextualizing: Imagine the setting surrounding this source: How was the world that made this source different than our own?
  • Corroborating: What do other sources say about the information in this document? Do they agree or disagree with what this document says?
  • Close Reading: What does the document say? Is it biased? What is the tone?


Lead a discussion about the Temperance Movement based on the images and students’ notes and conclusions.

  • What reasons did people have for supporting the Temperance Movement?
  • What reasons did people have for wanting to keep alcohol legal?
  • Which side of the debate are you on?


Then, lead a discussion on how students used the primary sources to learn about the Temperance Movement.

  • What did you learn from these sources? How was it different from what you learned in the video clip or from other secondary sources?
  • What can you learn about a time period from images that text sources do not reveal?
  • How did these images reveal the complex issues around Temperance?
  • How do you think historians use historical images when they write history books?

Going Further

Direct students to analyze historical images that portray Prohibition using the same method they used for the images portraying the Temperance Movement. (See the PBS Prohibition site for images.) Which side of the Temperance debate was victorious? Was the result what they were hoping for?

More on History Detectives

Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support/enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom.







National History Standards

Historical Thinking

2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation

4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research


US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 6: the Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

  • Standard 3: The rise of the American labor movement and how political issues reflected social and economic changes

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • Standard 2: The changing role of the United States in world affairs through World War I


Common Core State Standards

Grades 6-8

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.



CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.



CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.