History

The Boozer’s Parade

"The term “on the wagon” typically means that you have given up something, most notably alcohol. But where did this phrase come from?" by Major Jason Swain

Popular sayings are often rooted in reality. The term “on the wagon” typically means that you have given up something, most notably alcohol. But where did this phrase come from? Believe it or not, The Salvation Army had a major role in coining this popular phrase!

In the 1890s, parades and marches were nothing new to The Salvation Army in New York City, Chicago and other major cities. The era of the “open air” meeting was still in its heyday, and the idea of a “boozer’s convention” sprang together from several different minds. Large municipal buses were pressed into service, followed by water wagons often manned by reformed drinkers.

Leading off the parade was a 10-foot-high papier-mâché whiskey bottle and a huge brass band. Soon Salvationists in the parade were rounding up those who were intoxicated and put them “on the wagon.” The parade ended at headquarters where participants were given a free meal and then invited to attend an evangelical meeting. These meetings often featured reformed alcoholics who had been “saved.”

Soon the phrase “falling off the wagon” denoted a reformed alcoholic who had reverted back to drinking.

As Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920, the boozer’s convention parades ceased to have their impact, though occasionally they were revived as a special event. When Prohibition was repealed in 1932 and the Great Depression gripped the country, the Army stepped up its efforts to help the poor and the down (but not out) families across the country.

The Army continues its fight against addiction with Adult Rehabilitation Centers across the United States, and many other useful programs in smaller communities. 

For more information, you can read “Marching to Glory: The History of The Salvation Army in the United States, 1880-1992” by Dr. Edward McKinley (Wm Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995). | Photos provided by National Headquarters Archives

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