The Gin Craze of the 18th century
With World Gin Day fast approaching, we thought we would take a look back in time at the history of Gin, and boy did we find something juicy! It’s what has become to be known as the 18th-century craze for gin.
The craze goes as far back as the 1500’s where only the rich were considered to be able to afford spirits. Mind you, spirits were about double the strength back then as they are now. Fast-forwarding a few century’s to the 1700’s, a spirit storm hit in London and England. Before this, beer was drunk mainly by men and some women but it was considered the social norm to be drunken by men and left women with very limited choice.
The craze came to full effect in the 1800’s where the poor of England ventured to London in search of a gold city that they had been told about, only to find the streets paved with mud and no work to be found. But what they did have, was Gin.
The poor roamed the streets drinking away their sorrows and even exchanging garments of clothing for the spirit and walking the streets nude. In those days, before the revolution of cotton mills, the cloth was considered to be quite expensive.
One of the most famous incidents that occurred over this time was a case with Judith Defour. Judith was a homeless single mother who loved the spirit gin. Her daughter was taken into care and given a new set of clothes. One Sunday in Jan 1743, Judith picked up her daughter Mary to take her out for the day but did not return. It was later found that she had strangled her daughter and sold the new clothes to buy herself Gin.
A number of these sorts of incidents sent panic across the city and upper class. As a result, an attempt to ban Gin was made. The sale of gin was made illegal, although it did not work well. It inspired a number of riots amongst the poor that did not want to give up their beloved spirit. The government alternatively tried to apply large taxes to it but this attempt proved useless as well as no one would pay it. They even employed informants, offering a reward for anyone who would “snitch” on unlicensed gin sellers. This also turned ugly as the informants would bribe the sellers to gain an extra bit of pocket money in exchange for their silence. Others were sniffed out by the sellers and beaten to death.
Eventually, the sellers came up with a solution producing what was called the “Puss-and-Mew Machine”. It was a contraption that was built in an alleyway with a large wooden cat on a wall. Crowds flocked to the machine placing the money in the mouth in exchange for gin being poured through a pipe that came out of the paw. As the government was unable to witness both sides of the transaction they were unable to press charges.
A display featuring a ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ at the Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington, London. (Image used with permission from Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington, London)
The gin craze was an example of a drug that had no social norms. They would drink the gin straight without mixers because they did not know that it could be done another way and used to drink it the same way as beer.
These days, we know a lot more about the juniper spirit and there are different rules that have been adopted by the society of what appropriates acceptable drinking behaviour.