Mary Hannah Hanchett Hunt was a leader in the campaign for temperance education in the schools. She was known in her day as the woman who appeared before more legislative bodies than any other person. She traveled thousands of miles and delivered innumerable messages on temperance, education, and similar themes. The groundwork that Mary Hunt laid helped to develop and legislate the Eighteenth Amendment which put Prohibition into effect in the United States.
Mary was born on June 4, 1830 in South Canaan, Connecticut. She was the second child of the four daughters born to Ephraim Hanchett and Nancy Swift. Her father owned and operated a family ironworks in Salisbury, Connecticut and was also a courageous and enthusiastic worker in the anti-slavery movement. Mary’s mother was a direct descendent of Edward Winslow, governor of the Plymouth Colony and Thomas Thacher, the first pastor of Boston’s Old South Church.
Mary was a well educated woman. She attended local schools as a child and went on to teach in a country school for one year before enrolling in Amenia Seminary in New York in 1847. In 1848 she entered Patapsco Female Institute, near Baltimore, Maryland. After a thorough course of studies she became a professor of natural science at the Seminary. While working at Patapsco Female Seminary, Mary began to study the physiological effects of alcohol. Though she did not realize it, Mary was unconsciously training for her life work in behalf of scientific temperance instruction.
In 1852 Mary married Leander B. Hunt. After becoming a mother she found a further education and preparation for her great work. She saw the sale of liquor and the consumption of alcohol as the great enemy of society and the sorrow of mothers and wives.
While contemplating the problems that the use of alcohol created in society, she quickly realized that rescue work was only part of the answer. She felt that the real nature and effects of alcoholic drinks upon the mind and body needed to be taught to children. She believed that instruction in the negative effects of alcohol to children should not be optional, but mandatory.
Mary was an active member of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.). She became the superintendent of the newly formed educational department of that group. With Mary in the lead, a new school curriculum on hygiene was created, which included a section on the evils of alcohol. While Mrs. Hunt did have a high regard for science, saving family from the devastating effects of alcohol became her passion. She readily acknowledged that her true goal was to produce “from the schoolhouses all over the land….trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon” (quoted in Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, III, 1269).
The Eighteenth Amendment is often traced back to the influence that Mary Hunt had on the generation of school children brought up on W.C.T. U. approved textbooks. Though Mary died before it’s enactment in 1920, her life’s work helped bring into law the prohibition of the manufacturing, sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States, which lasted from 1920-1933.