Anti-Canteen Law (It May not be What You Think)

The army formed canteens or small restaurants during the 1880s. The canteens sold beer to soldiers. Its goal was to give an alternative to off-base saloons. Over time the temperance movement grew stronger. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) led the fight to remove the sale of alcohol from canteens. The result was called an “anti-canteen law.”

Anti-Canteen Law

Not “Anti-Canteen”

The so-called anti-canteen law was not designed to harm any canteen or post exchange. The government wanted to prohibit the sale of alcohol on military bases. 

Congress passed the Army Appropriations Act of 1901. People soon referred to it as the Army Act. It tried to remedy some of the weaknesses the army had during the Spanish-American War (1898).

Section 38

The Army Act went into effect on February 2, 1901. The anti-canteen law refers to the following section of the Act.

” Section 38. The sale of or dealing in beer, wine, or any intoxicating liquor by any person in any post-exchange or canteen or army transport, or upon any premises used for military purposes by the United States, is hereby prohibited. The Secretary of War is hereby directed to carry the provision of this section into full force and effect.”

Obviously, this was not anti-canteen. It stated that no alcoholic beverages may be be sold on military property. Of course, this might lead to harm. That’s because canteens largely depended on profits from alcohol sales to fund their operations. And those facilities provided venues for rest, relaxation, and recreation. And those were important for morale. It might also lead soldiers to visit off-base saloons. These sometimes included prostitutes.


anti-canteen law
Title: The canteen or the dive – in the name of decency and common sense, which is best for the American soldier?


The provision was highly controversial. Those who opposed the provision used the term “anti-canteen.”


anti-canteen law
The anti-canteen world filled with drunken men fighting.

But it’s important to realize how contentious the temperance debate was at that time. We know how impassioned people can be about the subjects of religion or politics. People today say that to avoid argument, avoid talking about religion or politics. Back when the anti-canteen law was being discussed, people added the wet/dry issue to the list. That is the conflict between advocates (drys) and opponents of temperance (wets). 

Yet it’s difficult to untangle the arguments from the motives. That’s because arguments are based on wet or dry beliefs. It’s like a person defending a candidate they don’t like simply because the candidate is in the same political party


Did people support alcohol sales because it supported canteens? And they were good for morale? Did they want to protect soldierss from dangerous moonshine? Did they want to keep them away from saloons? Saloons often had gambling and prostitution.

On the other hand, did people oppose alcohol sales because they wanted soldiers to spend their money on other things? Or did they really oppose alcohol sales because they thought drinking was sinful? So they really wanted to protect souls from going to Hell?

We can only know the actual arguments they made. Not their real motives.

But over time, wets successfully argued that canteens with alcohol were better than the alternative. That was, they said, off-base saloons that had drunkenness, gambling and prostitution.


The genera argument continues. Are soldiers 18-20 adults? If so, why can’t they drink? In fact, the US has the highest legal drinking age in the world.

So are soldiers age 18, 19 and 20 underage kids or military heroes? Of course, they risk their lives by serving in the U.S. military. In addition, they can do these things.

    • Marry
    • Adopt children.
    • Vote
    • Serve on juries.
    • Win election to public office.
    • Enter into legal contracts.
    • Operate businesses.
    • Employ others.
    • Go to prison.
    • Suffer execution.
    • Obtain abortions.
    • Engage in legal gambling.
    • Hunt with deadly weapons.
    • Fly airplanes.
    • Drive cars and other vehicles.
    • Buy porn.
    • Perform in porn.

You decide.


    • At this point you now know much more about the Ant-Canteen Law than most people!