Early 20th century American temperance movement. Originally “on the water wagon” or “on the water cart”,[1][2][3] referring to carts used to hose down dusty roads.

Alice Hegan Rice, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, 1901, p. 124[4]

I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. ‘I'm on the water-cart,’ sez he.

Compare New York Anti-Saloon League:

Be a good sport about it. No more falling off the water wagon. Uncle Sam will help you keep your pledge.


on the wagon

  1. (idiomatic) Abstaining from drinking any alcoholic drink, usually in the sense of having given it up (as opposed to never having partaken); teetotal.
    1917: “Thank you, but; – er – I’m on the wagon, you know,” declined the youth.Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Oakdale Affair [1]
  2. By extension, maintaining a program of self-improvement or abstinence from some other undesirable habit.
    He’s been on the smoking cessation wagon for two weeks now.




  1. ^ On the Wagon, World Wide Words, Michael Quinion
  2. ^ on the wagon” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary (2001).
  3. ^ "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson, New York, 1997.
  4. ^ Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch at Project Gutenberg
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