I just watched the movie 'Nightmare Alley' and, in one of the scenes, the main character when describing his childhood with an alcoholic father says:

He went white ribbon when I was ten.

What does this mean? What does going 'white ribbon' mean? I've never heard this expression before.


5 Answers 5


I chanced to find a link to the script.
Script of Nightmare Alley

Did your father drink?
STAN: He went White Ribbon when I was ten.
LILITH: And before?
He squirms ever so slightly.
STAN: Clearly, before, he did. If you knew what White Ribbon meant.

The words "White Ribbon" are repeated twice, capitalized both times.

By searching for "White Ribbon", I found that it is (among other things) the symbol of WCTU, Women's Christian Temperance Union.

The White Ribbon has been the badge of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union founded by Frances Willard since its founding in 1873.

Wikipedia Temperance Movemnent

The Temperance movement in the United States is a movement to curb the consumption of alcohol.

Maybe the passage means that the father had quit drinking.

  • 7
    I took a peek into the original book and the dialog is different: "'Did your father drink?' Hell, no. He was White Ribbon" So the original source is meant to highlight his temperance. I feel that is further support for this answer.
    – Yorik
    Feb 2, 2022 at 22:30

The answer posted by Jack O'Flaherty seems quite plausible in the context of the cited movie script. Nevertheless, the only instances of "white ribbon" that I've been able to find in slang dictionaries identifies the term as referring to gin.

For example, from J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1904):

WHITE-SATIN (-LACE, -TAPE, -WINE, or -RIBBON), subs. phr. (common). — Gin [cross-references omitted]

From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, second edition (1938):

white ribbon, satin, tape, wine, wool ; also w[hite] lace. Gin : low : resp[ectively] C 19–20 ; from ca. 1720 (A New Canting Dict[ionary], 1725); 1820 (Randall's Diary); from ca. 1780 (Grose, 1st ed.); mid-C 19–20,— occ[asionally] merely lace or its synonym driz. [J.C.] H[otten, The Slang Dictionary], 1st ed., describes w. satin and w. tape as women's terms, as, also, was lace. All are ob[solete] ; in fact, white wine and w. wool did not survive beyond C. 19; white satin may well endure, however, because of the trade name White Satin Gin.

As suggested by Partridge, J.C. Hotten, The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical and Anecdotal, new edition (1874): has these related entries:

White satin, gin,—term amongst women. See SATIN ["Satin, gin ; 'a yard of SATIN,' a glass of gin. Term used by females on make-believe errands, when the real object of their departure from the home to replenish the private bottle. With servants the words 'tape' and 'ribbon' are more common, the purchase of these feminine requirements being the general excuse for asking to 'run out for a little while.'"]

White tape, gin, —term used principally by female servants. See RIBBON ["Ribbon, gin, or other spirits. Modification of white satin"].

White wine, the fashionable term for gin. [Example:] "Jack Randall then impatient rose, / And said, 'Tom's speech were just as fine / If he would call that first of GOES / By that genteeler name—WHITE WINE.'" —Randall's Diary, 1820

And from Jonathon Green, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, second edition ((2005):

white ribbon n. (also white ribbin) {early 19C} gin.

Green notes that in the early to middle nineteenth century ribbon (by itself) might refer to "gin; spirits in general {var. on SATIN and like it implying the smoothness of good gin}."

All of these instances of "white ribbon" (etc.) as slang for gin are from British sources. The adoption of the white ribbon as a symbol of total abstinence from alcohol and other pernicious societal temptations seems to have originated in the United States, under the auspices of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, although it quickly spread to Britain as well. In fact, the earliest published mention of "White Ribbon movement" that a Google Books search turns up is from a London periodical, The Bible Christian Magazine (May[?] 1883):

TIVERTON.—Our Quarterly Meeting was held at Cheriton Fitzpaine, March 26th. ... A public tea was provided, of which about 100 persons partook. A public meeting was held in connection with the White Ribbon movement, which has been organized here about a month, having already 85 m4mbers enrolled.

Obviously, "white ribbon" had a very different meaning within the WCTU of the late nineteenth century than on the streets of early nineteenth-century London. Frances Willard, "Temperance Legislation, Past and Future," in The Review of Churches (February 1893) explains:

The White Ribbon movement, so called from its badge, the symbol of peace, purity, and philanthropy, has its headquarters in Chicago, where the Women's Temple has been built a source of revenue to the Society from rentals, besides being its official headquarters. Here is its publishing house (founded and conducted wholly by women), here it publishes three papers, and sends out over a hundred million pages of Temperance and Purity literature in a year. The Society has its own "Lecture Bureau" for furnishing speakers and organizers; its own Press department for supplying facts, arguments, and news to the press. A National Temperance Hospital and Training School for Nurses have been established in another part of the city, to demonstrate the practicability of the non-use of alcoholics in medicine.

B.O. Flowers, "Some of Civilization's Silent Currents," in The Arena (November 1892) offers a vivid picture of the White Ribbon movement and other contemporaneous improvement societies:

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and its sister organization, the White Ribbon movement for social purity, are being felt more or less in millions of homes. The White Cross movement; societies for home culture and for ethical training; summer schools of philosophy, science and ethics; college extension; and Associated Charities, with all the encumbrances of conventionalism, are leavening society and doing far more than we realize to keep in check the baleful influences of the saloon, of the incoming tide of ignorant and vicious emigration, of the aggressive democracy of crime and vice now within our borders, and the vicious spirit of the business world, which to so large an extent worships gold and loses all finer thought in thought of self.

Although it is tempting to imagine early prohibitionists commandeering the British servant-girl slang term for gin and transforming it into a symbol of what Flowers calls "social purity" and Willard calls "peace, purity, and philanthropy," it seems far more likely that the older euphemistic "white ribbon" of make-believe errands has no connection whatsoever to the newer "white ribbon" of moral uplift, social purity, and alcohol-free medicine. An embrace of tee-total abstinence from alcohol—if not of the other pillars of the WCTU's White Ribbon movement—does indeed seem to be the sense of the phrase "went White Ribbon" as used in the 1947 film Nightmare Alley.


I can tell you what it used to mean where I’m from. My great grandmother told me what she went through in order to get a divorce. It was almost impossible. So much so….she later had a child out of wedlock bc she refused to get remarried. She used to tell me she “would rather have a blanket baby than go through that hell again”. She was an unrepentant infamous rebel in our family. And I loved her for it. I don’t know how much is family lore and how much is factual but I will tell you what was told to me

Divorce was prohibited by the church until the late 1800s. Even in the early 1900s if you were female you had to prove you were being horribly abused or had been totally abandoned by your husband. The church had all kinds of requirements and things they required you to do before you could request a hearing to present your proof. Such as Sermons and counseling courses you were required to attend. If the husband wouldn’t attend. Oh well. Both of you had to attend. With one exception. If the husband was a known drinker they would intervene and send someone to supervise your home. Literally move in ….to break drinking vices. It was an organized church group of against the consumption of alcohol. And they gave you little white ribbons when they deemed you were back on the right path to a godly home. If the drinking continued despite their effort and often forceful guidance. The woman would be granted a hearing to have her divorce petition heard. My great grandmother said it was so common. That there were several homes all over the city that had a church supervisor living there. I asked her how long it took. She said it was always different for each home. But always too long. Up to a year. She remembers how jealous she was when the lady down the street got lucky because her husband crashed his car three and died 3 months into the ordeal…. That may seem harsh but remember back in those days you were allowed to beat your wife. Rule of thumb. She said the abolitionist invaders did not care if your husband slapped you around they just cared if he drank.

So in the book it implies Stan was abused by a church official And his father knew. And did nothing to help. Just watched. the mother ran off and left her kid behind with the drunken father. I think the movie only mentions she ran off with a man that played the piano.

  • 3
    Theres more about the white ribbon incidents on myheritage.com. With more detail. I can’t post hers bc it’s associated with a living persons account. If you’re interested in learning more.. go check it out. May 25, 2022 at 17:29

'White Ribbon Remedy' was a concoction sold as a patent cure for Alcoholism by the Gates Medicine Company Inc., and 'Indorsed', according to The St John Daily Sun of April 3 1902, by the Women's Christian Temperance Union identified by Jack O'Flaherty in their answer.

The vendors of this miracle cure eventually came a cropper being serves with a Cease and Desist order in 1946 for false advertising.

[Docket No. 4301] Part 3— Digest of Cease and Desist Order IN THE MATTER OF GATES MEDICINE COMPANY, INC. § 3.6 (t) Advertising falsely or misleadingly—Qualities or properties of product: § 3.6 (x) Advertising falsely or misleadingly—Results: § 3.6 (y) Advertising falsely or misleadingly—Safety: § 3.71 (e) Neglecting, unfairly or deceptively, to make material disclosure— Safety. In connection with offer, etc., of respondent’s Medicine and “Improved White Ribbon Remedy”, or any other substantially similar preparations, disseminating, etc., any advertisements by means of the United States mails, or in commerce, or by any means, to induce etc., directly or indirectly, purchase in commerce etc., of said preparations by which advertisements represent, directly or by implication, (1) that said “White Ribbon Remedy” constitutes a competent or effective treatment for the liquor habit, or that it is safe and harmless; and (2) that said “Improved White Ribbon Remedy” constitutes a competent or effective treatment for the liquor habit or is a remedy for nervousness, fatigue, illness, or other condition caused by the excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages; or which advertisements fail to reveal that the use of said “White Ribbon Remedy” may cause depression of the cardiovascular system, chronic irritation of the stomach and intestinal tract, nausea and failure to eat and get the proper amount of food minerals and vitamins necessary to maintain health; prohibited. (Sec. 5, 38 Stat. 719, as amended by sec. 3, 52 Stat. 112; 15 U.S.C., Supp. IV, sec 45b) t Cease and desist order, Gates Medicine Company, Inc., Docket 4301, August 6, 1941]

It seems likely therefore that, in context, 'to go White Ribbon' is probably to declare abstinence with the aid of White Ribbon Remedy as 'Indorsed' by the Women's Christian Temperance Movement.


So, with info from Niki, I'm going to say a church man came into his childhood home as an alcohol monitor. During his time there, he abused Stan and wooed Stan's mother. Stan says his mother ran off with a bible thumper or to that effect and this would be the whole sad backstory in a nutshell.

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