The Liquid Vampire spreads its wings! Order versus Chaos in the 19th c., or Cheers to an Age of Uncertainty

“Alcohol, Death, and the Devil” by George Cruikshank, c. 1830. Library of Congress
“Alcohol, Death, and the Devil” by George Cruikshank, c. 1830. Library of Congress

The history of alcohol plays out like a production of any fine comedy or tragedy – the actors, the audience and their response, all funded by the money men.

As the cheap gin of the 18th century flowed out of the village streets and into the 19th century metropolis, the chasm between the players with vested interests in alcohol became more pronounced and vicious. The industry offered more choices for consumers and made them more readily available. Consumers, well, they consumed. It was an incredibly unsettling century that witnessed the end of rural agrarian life and migration to the big, polluted, dangerous metropolitan — an unwelcome march from idyllic pastoral settings to chaotic, grossly overcrowded, cities filled with both mechanized and human monsters.

The ‘Problem’

During this period, drunkards seemed to be everywhere. So it seemed were urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality rates. Add to this industrialization, rapid urbanization, grossly overcrowded streets, and unemployment and the easy availability of cheap gin, and you had a problem. Drunkenness was an accepted part of life in the 18th century, but the 19th century brought a change in attitudes as a result of increasing industrialization and the need for a reliable and punctual work force. Self-discipline was needed in place of self-expression, and task orientation had to replace relaxed conviviality. Drunkenness would come to be defined as a threat to industrial efficiency and growth.

19th century Visions of Drunkenness
19th century Visions of Drunkenness

The Response

Groups that began by promoting temperance – the moderate use of alcohol – became abolitionist and pressed for the complete and total prohibition of the production and distribution of beverage alcohol.

Problems commonly associated with industrialization and rapid urbanization were attributed to alcohol. Thus, problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality rates were blamed on alcohol, although “it is likely that gross overcrowding and unemployment had much to do with these problems.”

More and more personal, social and religious and moral problems were blamed on alcohol. And not only was it enough to prevent drunkenness; any consumption of alcohol came to be seen as unacceptable.

In 1804, British physician Thomas Trotter suggested that chronic drunkenness was a disease.

In 1849, Swedish physician Magnus Huss coined term “alcoholism” and described what he considered to be the disease of Alcoholismus chronicus.

Temperance societies were established in a number of countries beginning in 1819 with the founding of such an organization in Sweden and one in the United States in 1826. In 1830, temperance societies were founded in Ireland and Germany and in the following year societies were established in England and in Scotland. This was followed by the formation of temperance organizations in Australia (1832), India (1835), New Zealand (1836), South Africa (1838), Norway (1840), Denmark (1840), Bermuda (1841), Jamaica (1841), The Netherlands (1842), Poland (1844), Hawaii (1847), Finland (1883), and Japan (1909).

In 1837 a temperance society was established in France “but it never made much progress,” apparently because the French saw inebriation as a problem caused by Protestantism.

In 1853, the United Kingdom Alliance (UKA) was founded in 1853 “to outlaw all trading in intoxicating drinks.”

Vintage Anti-Absinthe Poster, Switzerland
Vintage Anti-Absinthe Poster, Switzerland

In 1870, The American Association for the Study and Cure of Inebriety was founded and published a journal promoting the disease theory of alcoholism.

In 1872, A Licensing Act was passed in the UK restricting the hours of alcohol beverage sale in England and Wales.

IN 1873, The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Cleveland, Ohio. They began a successful campaign in 1882 to require anti-alcohol education in every state in the U.S. as well as its territories and possessions; and in 1895, a very damaging three year national boycott in the U.S. against root beer because it falsely assumed that the beverage was alcoholic. The WCTU’s Department of Scientific Temperance taught as scientifically proved fact that,

  • The majority of beer drinkers die from dropsy. (An old term for edema, or swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water.)
  • [Alcohol] turns the blood to water.
  • [Referring to invalids.] A man who never drinks liquor will get well, where a drinking man would surely die.

In 1874, Prime Minister Gladstone lost his seat in Parliament when he attempted to restrict gin consumption.

By the 1870s, the temperance movement exerted great influence in American life and culture, as this example illustrates. GW1In this Currier and Ives print of 1848, George Washington bid farewell to his officers with a toast in his hand and a supply of liquor on the table. Reflecting the power of the temperance movement, a re-engraved version in 1876 removed all evidence of alcohol. Gone is the glass from Washington’s hand and the liquor supply is replaced with a hat.

Dr. Leslie Keeley, an American physician who asserted that “alcoholism is a disease and I can cure it,” established his first “bicloride of gold” injection treatment center in 1879. He sold franchises for over 200 centers around the world and died a millionaire (worth about $25,000,000 in today’s purchasing power.) He claimed that 95% of the patients were permanently cured. When former patients resumed drinking, he insisted that they were cured of their disease, but drank because they chose to do so.

During the 1880s, a number of U.S. states adopted state-wide prohibition within their borders.

Coca-Cola was introduced in 1886 as a temperance beverage.

By 1894, drunkenness was seen as a major problem among unskilled urban laborers in Finland that a prohibition movement developed.

bs747The Money Trail

Absinthe was introduced into France in 1805 and subsequently became very popular for many decades. Subsequently, absinthe used to be found wherever there was French Culture.

U.S. federal statistics of 1810 show that the six main whiskey-producing states together distilled twice as many gallons of whiskey per annum as there were people in America. Ten years later, the national per capita consumption had risen to more than five gallons per head per annum.”

By 1833, the Guinness brewery had grown to become the largest in Ireland.

In 1850, Dry gin was developed in London.

guinness-strengthThe period 1851-1900, is considered the golden age of the saloon.

In 1856, funded by a distiller, Louis Pasteur investigated the process of fermentation and isolated yeast, a major discovery in the field of alcohol production.

In 1860, Irish distillers began to blend whiskey.

In the post- American Civil War period (1861-1865), beer replaced whiskey as preferred beverage of working men.

“In 1870, exactly a third of all British national tax revenues derived from the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks.”

“In 1875, French absynthe drinkers downed approximately 185,000 gallons of the stuff; by 1910, that figure had increased to an astonishing 9,500 gallons.”

Beer was first pasteurized in 1876, years before milk benefited from the process.


  • Alcohol and the Writer / Donald W. Goodwin
  • Alcohol: The World’s Favorite Drug / Griffith Edwards, 2000
  • Message in a Bottle: Stories of Men and Addiction / Jefferson A. Singer, 1997
  • Alcohol in the Movies, 1898-1962 / Judy Cornes, 2006
  • Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason / Jessica Warner, 2002
  • Ethnic Drinking Subcultures / Andrew Greeley, William McCready, Gary Thiesen, 1980
  • Drink and the Politics of Social Reform: Anti-alcoholism in France since 1870 / Patricia Prestwich, 1988
  • Drink, Temperance and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Germany / James S. Roberts, 1984
  • Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris / Thomas Brennan, 1988
  • “Ireland Sober, Ireland Free”: Drink and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland / Elizabeth Malcolm, 1986
  • Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris / Thomas Brennan, 1988

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