By Emma Major
The Government’s decision in 1736 to make gin prohibitively expensive through levying hefty licensing fees was met by a flurry of prints, poems and tracts lamenting the government’s cruelty in depriving the poor ‘of a chirruping Glass’.[i] ‘No more can I seat me to Study/ Than a Fish can swim without Fin,’ cried Timothy Scrubb; ‘My Brains are confus’d and quite muddy/ By losing my Comforter Gin.’[ii] Other writers complained of how all levels of society would suffer from the loss of gin: from poet to oyster-woman, whatever your role in the division of labour, gin, it seemed, ensured success and happiness.
Gin, or genever, or Geneva as it was first known when it was popularized in England, had become so popular in the few decades following the accession of William and Mary in 1688 that it had taken on the character of a boozy old lady, a familiar, friendly face who could be relied upon to help celebrate or commiserate in everyday life. She emerges as a demotic, alcoholic counterpart to the more sedate Britannia who also flourished in high and low culture during these years. Madam Gin, Queen Gin, Mother Gin: whatever her title, she came from impeccable Protestant lineage and offered a patriotic alternative to French brandy. According to her eighteenth-century historian and panegyrist Stephen Buck, Gin had first aided the Protestant cause in general and England in particular by providing the troops in the Thirty Years’ War with the alcoholic fire or Dutch courage to triumph over the Roman Catholic opposition. (Indeed, he claimed English military success was not due to the famous national taste for ‘Beef and Pudding’, but to its adoption of gin.)[iii] The OED notes the folk-etymological connection historically made between genever and Geneva, that most Protestant of cities, though Buck dismisses any connection to foreign religious fanaticism, and praises it as a home-grown native beverage, scorning the snobbery and disloyalty of those who drink gin in secret and prefer Holland Gin to the British variety.
Madam Geneva’s demise by legislation in September 1736 was marked by mock mourning processions in the streets of London, Bristol and elsewhere.[iv] The authorities were concerned about riots when the act came into force, but although protests were vociferous, civil war did not break out. Lavish encomiums were published about Gin, though as you can see from the two commemorative prints I’ve included here, depictions did not glamorize or flatter. Indeed, ‘Mother’ and ‘Madam’ Gin may also be in the sense of ‘bawd’; this meaning of ‘mother’ was popularized during the eighteenth century as it drew on the anti-Roman Catholic slang that equated mothers, abbesses and nuns with brothel-keepers and prostitutes.[v] There are many visual similarities between William Hogarth’s depiction of the drunken mother in his 1751 print of Gin Lane and his depiction of bawds elsewhere in his work. Yet despite her general depiction by admirers as well as critics as a figure lacking in youth, beauty, or visible power, Gin was popularly regarded with affection, as offering a sociable tonic you could purchase from street-sellers and gin shops, or even via the world’s first vending machine, the ‘puss-and-mew’ mechanism that was devised to dodge licensing fees. Designs varied but the customer would address the cat shaped device with a ‘Puss’, and if gin was available would be told ‘Mew’; money would be put in a drawer and the gin dispensed either through a pipe connected to the cat’s tail, or via a filled container in the drawer. (Thomas Pink recreated this for a publicity event in 2014, using pink gin: see http://www.thomaspink.com/london-collection/content/fcp-content .)
What was actually dispensed? The noun ‘genever’ or ‘Geneva’ came from the Dutch drink jenever, which came from the word for juniper. But juniper was not always present in the substances sold as gin, whereas turpentine, lime oil, and sulphuric acid, often were. Gin was also often watered down, so it is difficult to know the alcoholic strength or actual flavor of what was sold as gin, especially at the lower end of the market. The moonshine versions of gin sound foul-tasting, but the idea of gin, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, possessed magical properties for many, representing cheerful sociability, curative powers, aphrodisiac properties, and simply the promise of ‘best’ dispelling ‘all human Woe’. [vi](Buck, 10) For many, it seemed, gin, whatever its actual composition, was the ‘chirruping glass’ of universal cheer.
[i] Thomas Chaloner, The merriest poet in Christendom (London: for the author, 1732), 23.
[ii] Timothy Scrubb, Desolation: Or, The Fall of Gin (London: J. Roberts, 1736), 16.
[iii] Stephen Buck, Geneva: A Poem in Blank Verse (London: T. Cooper, 1734), 5.
[iv] Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (London: Profile, 2003), 126-30.
[v] Emma Major, Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and Nation 1712-1812 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 145-8.
[vi] Buck, Geneva, 10.
Emma Major is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Department of English and the interdisciplinary Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York UK. She has published on religion, national identity and gender in Britain 1670-1820, and is currently working on a book on faithful citizens 1789-1829. She has a sideline in gin studies.