The history of “The Wagon”

Are you on the wagon? Or off of it? This phrase has been one that has followed us from prohibition and probably is being said more often this month than any other as more people are abstaining from alcohol. 

On the wagon, meaning you’re not drinking. 

Off the wagon, meaning you excess. 

Let’s dive a little deeper and investigate the history behind this phrase. 

Not surprisingly, this phrase was American-born during the famous time of prohibition (1920-1933). If you’re not familiar with prohibition, in the 19th century, an alcohol-free America was unsuccessfully tested when the 18th amendment to the United States Constitution banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. Because of prohibition, things like the speakeasy, the French 75, and the phrase “On The Wagon” were born. But was the wagon an actual wagon or just a figure of speech? Let’s find out… 

The wagon, in this American expression, refers to horse-drawn or mule-drawn water wagons or water carts that would spray water onto the streets to keep the dust down. During prohibition times, it was said that men would climb onto such wagons and proclaim that they would officially give up alcohol and drink only water. When the proclamation or oath was broken, it was referred to as falling off the water wagon. Another lesser-known but equally interesting story is that men who were being carted to prison via wagon after being arrested were allowed one last alcoholic drink before being locked away… 

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