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Sinners and Saints - Part 01

Vice and Reform in Kansas

Painting, The Spirit of Kansas.

A Moral and Pure Society

"In all ages woman has taken an active part in the defense of man." --Carry Nation, The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, 1908

Women were the driving force behind many reform movements. They provided the energy and the push for change. But, lacking the right to vote, they needed men to pass laws to improve their communities.

Many men listened to these concerns because women were seen as moral guardians. It was widely assumed that women were the natural defenders of purity, protecting their families from the evils of society. Enough men supported women's reform efforts that legislation was enacted to control gambling and prostitution and to limit alcohol and tobacco consumption. Nineteenth century reformers truly believed government could and should legislate morality.

Rampant Vice

Why were there so many reformers a century ago? Laws were not being enforced and, particularly in cities, vice was rampant. Unlike today, there were no social agencies to help the poor and addicted. Reformers wanted communities to deal with these problems, and for individuals to lead moral lives.

The painting The Spirit of Kansas (top, right) was first exhibited in 1893 at the world's fair in Chicago, which celebrated "four centuries of human progress." The artist, Mary Pillsbury Weston, depicts civilization as bringing mankind out of the darkness and into the light. Reformers believed their efforts would achieve the same results- create a moral and pure society.

Such ideas about progress and reform became part of a larger national movement known as Progressivism (1900-1920), which sought to reduce the influence of big business, give the average citizen more say in politics, and regulate personal morality.

Identify the vices being practiced in this photograph of "The Varieties" saloon in Dodge City

Vice on Display

Saloons were public places where many vices merged. This was particularly true during the 19th century.

Although alcohol was the main reason men visited saloons, they were also drawn by gambling, prostitution, and other pastimes to which saloons provided access.

Tobacco:  Although many Kansans smoked, reformers identified it as a vice that corrupted youth and polluted living space.

Alcohol:  The drinking man was blamed for spending his pay on alcohol and not on his wife and children. Drunkenness often led to physical abuse.

Prostitution:  Many citizens were upset that prostitution was carried on so openly. They formed purity leagues around the country.

Gambling:  Gambling attracted women and youth, two categories of citizens reformers wanted to protect from society's ills.


Sinners & Saints is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.

  1. A Moral and Pure Society - Creating better communities was the goal.
  2. Alcohol - The politics behind alcohol reform.
  3. Agitate, Educate, Organize! - Women's role in prohibition laws.
  4. Gambling - Betting men took money away from their families.
  5. Gambling Timeline - Kansas issues.
  6. Prostitution - Seen as threatening the moral fabric of society.
  7. Prostitution Timeline - Kansas issues.
  8. Smoking - Cigarettes were believed to corrupt youth.
  9. Smoking Timeline - Kansas and U.S. issues.
  10. Vice in the 20th and 21st Centuries - They're still vices, but now the issue is health.
  11. Kansas Reformed? - The definition of "vice" has shifted over time.

Contact us at kshs.kansasmuseum@ks.gov