James Nicholls / The Politics of Alcohol, Ch 3, “A New Kind of Drunkenness – The Gin Craze”

At the start of the 18th century, in England, gin signified modernity, free trade, and economic security. The State encouraged its consumption. By 1750, gin signified urban decay, social disintegration, and economic collapse. Gin exposed contradictions in the new market economy. The 1736 Gin Act  required a £50 license for sellers. This was effectively prohobitive. This was the first time an effectively prohibitive measure was ever tried. The Act claimed people of lower rank were made unfit for useful labor, and it would be the ruin of the kingdom. Gin’s prohibition was conceivable because gin was new, not anchored by tradition. Commonly it was discussed in the language of disease. Hale, Friendly Admonitions, wrote that habitual drinkers cannot extricate themselves, therefore it is the duty of the nation’s governors to suppress drinking. Hale was the first writer to bring State intervention to the otherwise free agency of the individual. Henry Fielding and others wrote of the effect on children and the future. What of our sailors and grenadiers? The figure of the diseased child was a staple of 18th century anti-gin literature. Gin was gendered and popular with women. Gin was seen as weakening the breed. Remember, everyone in Georgian England drank. All classes. But, anti-gin rhetoric targeted lower classes. The counter-argument was that gin created instantaneous drunkenness. 1736 Gin Act did not work. People kept selling. The product was worse regulation, violence, contempt for law. Gin Act radicalized people. Thoughtless indulgence transformed into political protest versus an already unpopular government. Soon after 1736, Jacobites exploded a bomb in Westminster Hall containing texts of 5 Acts of Parliaments, including the Gin Act. 1743 Act repealed it. It was always ineffective. The 1743 Gin Act reduced license fee. Quantity drank decreased. Stripped gin of its symbolic value with the London proletariat. Gin still decried. Henry Fielding wrote that lower classes emulated the upper classes when it came to drinking, but the result was crime. “Bad habits are as infectious by example as the plague itself by contact.” 1751 Gin Act (last one). Upped the licensing fee. Attempt to bring gin to respectability. Ended the gin craze. Gentrified gin. Gin consumption stopped signifying urban poverty. Hogarth’s images, “Gin Lane,” “Beer Street.”

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