Friday, October 21, 2016

"Craze": the wages of gin in 18th-century Britain

"Gin-shops are undoubtedly the Nurseries of all manner of Vice and Wickedness. There it is that old Practitioners in Roguery assemble, where meeting with young idle Fellows, who elope from their Parents, Friends or Masters, they instruct them in all the Arts and Tricks of their own Profession, which is, of robbing on the Highway, picking Pockets, forging Hands, breaking open Houses, Clipping and Coining and all other Crimes. . . ." (Henry Fielding, 1751)
For those whose idea of hot summer days includes an icy cocktail of gin, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason by Jessica Warner is a great companion read: an informative, informal history about one of the world's most seemingly civilized forms of demon alcohol.

In 1720s Britain, the introduction of gin from Holland was less of a civilizing influence than a demonizing force that had little to do with the drink itself. The easy availability of "Madame Geneva," as gin was known, opened a working-class social structure that literally frightened Britain's politicians into passing draconian laws resttricting gin's consumption. Gin quickly became the first "urban drug scare," and as most drug wars since then have followed, politics shaped the response to a new form of threat to established order: the poor were getting drunk in huge numbers, and in public. There was no telling what rebellion might result.

Gin shops, as they were called, became gathering places of the working poor, and the unregulated businesses became popular so quickly they gained reputations for danger, unrestrained behavior, and unsavory companions. Britain had seen opportunity in such crazes before -- including the introduction of coffee shops, the wildly successful and profitable tea trade -- but gin presented something new: gin, unlike beer, also appealed to women, who became a part of the "undesirable" urban element in large numbers for the first time.

Alarmed, Parliament acted to control the threat of an unsettled and unpredictable working class:

At most they hoped to set the clock back to the years before gin had supposedly corrupted the morals and work habits of the working poor ... At the time of the craze -- and indeed for the duration of the century -- per capita consumption of strong beer remained both high and remarkably constant, at approximately thirty gallons a year. Even so, at no point during the gin craze did anyone implicate beer in their attacks on drunkenness and its associated vices. On the contrary, even the most ardent enemies of gin encouraged workers to drink beer, believing that it would enable them to work all the harder.

The sustained effort to legislate morals failed badly, mostly because the social effects of gin from 1720-1750 were a small part of larger problems: overcrowding and neglected sanitation were elements of London's unregulated growth. Poverty could not be overlooked:  London's poor were drinking to escape the wretchedness of their lives, and the gin shops were considered a public menace by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson. (Hogarth's famous print, Gin Lane, imagined a nightmarish world destroyed by a seemingly demonic drink; by contrast, Beer Street displayed a sanguine city scene of happy neighbors.)

 William Hogarth, "Gin Lane" (1751) 

In 1736 Parliament passed the "most notorious" of a series of Gin Acts, which ended in failure. Gin consumption increased; moreover, the laws created an unintended effect, a working-class atmosphere of "open contempt for the law and its agents." 

Each successive "gin law" ensured that some would profit from the taxation and regulation of Madame Geneva, while at the same time gaining political capital from the prosecution of its effects. Warner also describes the parallels between past and present, especially those presented as "victims" of drug wars -- the unwed mother, the unemployable addict -- whose problems lay far outside the realm of the political or the ability to be helped by these laws.

The real pattern behind the gin acts was very simple: people worried about gin when very little else seemed to be happening -- and when the government was flush. And so people worried about gin and passed laws against it in times of peace, and conveniently forgot about it in times of war. Or, rather, they did not so much forget about gin as to choose to treat it as just another source of revenue. Two centuries later, in 1933, another legislature would also find itself short of funds; soon after this realization, it put an end to Prohibition by passing the Twenty-First Amendment.

Warner argues that a template to solving public so called "drug crises" was established that has since extended into the 21st century: The reformers were correct when they said, in effect, that London was in the midst of a public health crisis. They neglected to add, however, that poverty itself was bad for one's health, as were overcrowding and the absence of sanitation in any recognizable form. London was indeed in the midst of a public health crisis, but its root cause was poverty and not gin.

Written in a casual, conversational style, Craze describes how the fifty-year-long, escalating relationship of politics, drugs and society in 18th century England entwined to create the first known "drug menace." Each successive "gin law" ensured that some would profit from its taxation and regulation; and as British influence spread across the globe in the nineteenth century, gin became an unintended symbol of the nation's colonial character. Anyone for cocktails?

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