JF Ptak Science Books Post 2332
"...the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion'd compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it". --Daniel Defoe The Complete English Tradesman, 1727, volume 2, page 91.
[Source: the British Museum, here.]
I was moved to this post after reading a wonderful piece by Rebecca Onion at Slate Vault on an infographic/metaphorical social thermometer of drinking and temperance, a beautiful engraving published in 17971. (See here.) [Another, illustrated, version can be found at the College of Physicians, London, site, here.]
It reminded me of another great and iconic image regarding the evil of drink—it appeared earlier in the century, at a more difficult time in the history of London drunkenness. It is the William Hogarth's Gin Lane, published in 1751. I'm not sure what drove Hogarth to the subject matter—except of course he was a societal reporter, making art of what he saw, turning him observations of everyday street and cultural life in to parables. Certainly he needed go far to find subject material like this.
As we can see he only had to go as far as Bloomsbury (in the background and the tower of St. George towering) to find the location of his stage. The characters are well established, showing us in this unfolding tragedy a scene of drunken depravity and wantonness, of lechery, and forgetfulness, illness, crime, and death, all brought on by the continuing increase in gin and other alcohol consumption. But mainly gin. Gin was cheap, was sold everywhere, and was very effective. It was a disease, really, that affected London deeply throughout much of the 18th century, though the greatest part of the gin craze took place earlier in the century. Some of the problem was ameliorated by several governmental acts that interested with the sale of gin, though the major part of it occurred in the Gin Act of 1751, which was created to restructure the distribution of gin and make I more difficult (and expensive) to purchase—the logic of the move wasn't so much to convince the public not to drink gin, but to make it more difficult to buy the drink.
So gin was in the air, for sure—literally, and figuratively.
Hogarth attacked it. The most arresting figure for me is the scabbied drunken (syphalitic ?) mother in the middle foreground, passing out or wasting away, completely unconscious to the plight of her baby, falling, desperately, to certain major injury or death into a stairwell, without the attention of the mother, a vignette that is horrible and striking. At her feet is a starving skeleton, asleep or dead, dead or asleep, in a miserable state, although he does have a nice wicker basket with a bottle in it. This may be an allusion to Death from the Renaissance (and earlier) illustrations and depictions of Death coming to people at their play or profession—the Dance of Death, only this Death isn't dancing, it is only dying.
There's no relief in this print—an almost-calming scene at mid-left midground is Gripe's pawnbroker, the jaw-thrusting and disapproving proprietor assaying the tools of a man (a carpenter?) while a woman waits her turn, her pots in hand, waiting to pawn the stuff of existence or work. The three balls of the pawnshop's sign form a sort of upside down crucifix, which via a perspective tick hangs just above the steeple of St. George's. Under this cross all sorts of hellish behavior takes place.
At mid-right we find the distiller, with a big, ruddy, rheumy and raucous crowd in front of it, swinging chairs and crutches, close set, and depicted in such a way that you know everyone reeks.
In the upper right, forgotten, a man is seen hanging by the neck, a probable suicide, dead. Next door to his ruin house is a stable one, an undertaker's shop, with a sample of wares hanging as a sign—no doubt doing a decent business, though it seems as though any money left for coffins in these folks would've been drunk up a long time ago. To complete this architectural scene the house on the corner is collapsing, much like everything else.
Then in the gentle mist we see the coffin and body, and the men either putting the body in or taking it out—I think the viewer can choose for themselves which.
This image is the opposite of subtle, though you need to look for the messages a little; once found, they are forever present. Mr. Hogarth got his point across.
1. Lettsom, John Coakley, 1744-1815.History of some of the effects of hard drinking: The sixth edition. By J. C. Lettsom, ... The illustrations in question is "A MORAL AND PHYSICAL THERMOMETER; OR, A SCALE of the Progress of TEMPERANCE and INTEMPERANCE. LIQUORS, with their EFFECTS, in their usual Order". Summarizing, some drinking led to good health and tolerance; other sorts, not. The “Vices” perpetrated by the Bad Drink included the following: Idleness; Peevishness; Quarrelling; Fighting; Lying; Swearing; Obscenity; Swindling; Perjury; Burglary; Murder; Suicide. And the “Illnesses” associated with Bad Drink”: Sickness; Puking, and Tremors of the Hands in the Morning; Bloatedness; Inflamed Eyes; Red Nose & Face; Sore and swelled Legs; Jaundice; Pains in the Limbs, and burning in the Palms of the Hands, & Soles of the Feet; Dropsy; Epilepsy; Melancholy; Madness; Palsy; Apoplexy;Death. The social and economic onsequences: Debt; Black-Eyes; Rags; Hunger; Hospital; Poor-house; Jail; Whipping; The Hulks; Botany Bay; Gallows.