More on the Gin Craze

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Gin Lane & Soju-Ro

A long time ago, I started a planned series of posts that didn’t go very far, drawing some parallels between the England of the Gin Craze era (the early 1700s) and Korea in the first decade of the 21st century. I’m still not feeling like continuing it, but I am reading up on the Gin Craze (right now, working my way through Patrick Dillon’s wonderful Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva–The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze) as I continue working on a short story set during that period, and a number of things have struck me as fascinating.

So fascinating, indeed, that for me it’s a struggle to resist the urge to find a way to make my own narrative stretch over a couple of decades or more, just so I can work in all the neat details, an urge I’ve managed to resist so far but only barely.

 

gincoverWhat sorts of things am I talking about? Well, let’s see:

  • Even in the early 1700s, the theory of humours dominated the medical establishment: yeah, as in the four humours. Seriously. Modern medicine? It’s modern.
  • Not all bombs are created to hurt people. For example, there was a time when people actually conceived of parcel bombs–loud boom, and a flurry of papers (pamphlets) raining down from the air afterward–as a way of spreading propaganda. Seriously. This happened in 1736, in Westminster Hall, specifically in the Court of Chancery.  This was just too weird not to include in my story.
  • Spontaneous human combustion? That urban legend arose spontaneously in several European societies at around the time of the Gin Craze, so it seems, and it was at the time suggested that it was the saturation of the body with “spiritous distilled liquors” (ie. gin, or other hard liquor) that led to the mysterious fiery consumption of the dead, for reasons that seem logical for anyone who actually buys into the theory of the four humours. ONe of the most famous cases of the time was that of a woman called Grace Pitt.
  • Londoners were wild at the time. They were pelting people in court dress with mud (and worse), they were prone to acting as violent mobs when they felt “oppressed” by the law, and the also prone to pretty insane violence against people they agreed had done something wrong. (Informants on gin-sellers after Prohibition, for example, often had unpleasant, and even deadly, encounters with the urine of mob members.)
  • How being an English Jacobite in that time period didn’t so much mean anything about who you wanted to be King, as much as it was just an expression of resentment and resistance to the (Hanoverian) King that many English folk wanted on the throne. It had moved from being something like the anti-Qing Dynasty White Lotus Society, to a kind of contrarian, anti-authoritarian populist stance… of a kind reminiscent in Korea today, which makes sense: in neither society was there a sense among the common people of what participation in a democratic society might mean, regardless of the fact that while the English in this time didn’t have a vote, Koreans today do–I’d argue that the philosophy of democracy hasn’t penetrated popular Korean modes of politicsl engagement so deeply yet, only a few decades after the beginning of their still-young democracy, which is one reason that bloody, flamboyant, and over-the-top protest still features so largely there (as it did in Gin raze-era London, and plenty of other non-democratic societies).
  • The kinds of things people put in gin when they started mass producing it underground after prohibition? Poisonous as hell, ranging from turpentine and bitter almonds (ie. the very toxic source of arsenic) to lime, (yeah, quicklime, I mean–toxic stuff) and sulphuric acid and the extremely toxic cocculus indicus, or fishberry.  All of which leaves me even more leery of the stands in our local market here in Ho Chin Minh City that sell hard liquors for as little as the equivalent of USD $3-4/bottle. (And just in case you’re tempted to imagine brewers were any better? Nah, they were putting all kinds of toxic crap in their beer, too. FDAs and food safety regulations are also modern.)
  • Distilling was discovered by whom? Yes… you guessed it. Alchemists… and so “distilled spirituous liquors” were held to have pseudomagical properties, not just for health but in other, more mysterious ways. When gin production began, workable hydrometers did not exist, so people had no real idea how much alcohol was in their liquor; they just knew it was concentrated and that in that process, it took on extreme properties, like it’s burning bite and intoxicating power; it seemed only logical to imagine it might acquire other properties, too, in the process.
  • London was in the grip of a collapsed financial investment bubble… yeah, in the 1720s, baby.It was the South Sea Company’s stock, and the crisis itself trigged so much gin-drinking by the miserable folks who lost all their money in it that Gin got called South Sea Mountain, presumably for how the pallor and the gloom loomed over London society like a mountain, but also for the scale of the problem posed by cheap, readily-available gin. Many of the investors were women, because, like with gin, there were no rules or tradition barring them from making money this way: it was too new for that sort of thing to exist already. Panic and a general affliction were the result.
  • On 8 February 1749, an earthquake shook London. Then another hit on 8 March. London panicked, and people, expecting the Day of Judgment (as retribution for their urban wildness and debauchery) packed the churches and the streetsand the open fields all around London, waiting for the end, until the morning of the 9th of April, at which point they realized the end was not so nigh after all. Smollett wrote that, “In after ages… it will hardly be believed…” Well, I believe it, but it seems pretty nuts all the same.
  • The nicknames for gin in prisons in the 1740s are shockingly similar to the nicknames for gin’s contemporary equivalents in the illicit drug scene in America. Gin was variously called “Vinegar, Gossip, Crank, Mexico, Sky-blue[,] etc.” I can’t be the only one who thought of Breaking Bad when reading that phrase. Also, gin was a hot seller in prisons. Some people spent their full living allowance on the stuff.
  • “The Prohibition” in America is a misnomer: religious idiots had convinced an uptight, foolish government to try alcohol prohibition several times before. The first time was during the Gin Craze, and guess what? The results were pretty much the same as in the more-familiar American case: they failed to eradicate Gin from society (production grew under the ban, and only dissipated under social changes and projects for dealing with poverty), but they also managed to criminalize plenty of law-abiding citizens while creating a major criminal industry. Which means the current American “War on Drugs” launched by Nixon isn’t the second such foolish enterprise: it’s more like the third or fourth. (Bans on liquor can work when the ban is a reaction to a bad harvest, and it means people won’t be eating if booze production continues unabated; but moralistic bans just don’t work well.)
  • When women became not only major consumers of gin, but also major producers and sellers of it–the “public face of gin” as Dillon puts it, they freaked out reformers who wanted to get rid of the stuff for reasons that seem more deep-seated than just the moral objections to hard liquor:

Reformers hated women who drank because they threatened social order. But maybe older memories and fears lingered in the background. Crouched over her market barrow, the old basket-woman with a bottle in her had evoked the memory of other old women who had dispensed magic potions. She, too, transgressed social norms; she held the power of transformation and her end was death by fire. In the same year it passed the Gin Act, Parliament finally outlawed the burning of witches. But it was easier to eras witches from the statute book than to pluck them from the popular imagination. Grace Pitt, charred to ash on her own hearth-stone, had met the fate of all her kind. Spontaneous combustion became the threatened end for women who turned to spirits. They carried their own stake and flames within them.

And that paragraph–which ends off Chapter Thirteen, on the subject of women as emblematic of gin in the Londoner’s mind, as well as in the minds of prohibitionist “reformers” at the time–is an example of Dillon’s wonderful ability to tie together factual history and dogpiles of research together with thoughtful cultural insight and imagination. Gin is a great book, well worth the read… and this time, as I read it, the parallels with other places and times–most prominently, the inefficacy of the current “War on Drugs” in America–also are impossible to miss though Dillon doesn’t push that line much at all (mentioning it only at the end, in the context of this being a recurrent pattern where conservatives react to social change by banning whatever intoxicants are popular with the people who seem to represent that change in their minds: the gin-swilling migrants from the countryside into London in the early 1700s, or the blacks and Mexicans and “their marijuana,” or the long-haired youth who took up not just marijuana but also LSD and other intoxicants a few decades later, when Nixon starts the “war on drugs” in I think it was 1970).

Bonus: it’s really, really fun to marvel at the strange, antique language of a world where Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are just slipping from current culture into being old news.No idea how I’ll manage to work some of that into my story, though it’s absolutely necessary!

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3 thoughts on “More on the Gin Craze

  1. Thanks for this information, Gord. There’s lots of fascinating stuff here. I didn’t know about role of alchemy in distilling spirits.

    I wonder if you have looked into the Boxer rebellion and the resentment caused by the British pushing opium in China. I’ve heard from an Indian co-worker that many Hindus view alcohol as a very unwelcome side-effect of colonialism, so the same dynamic is at work in that country (but at a lower level, obviously). I know your focus is Korea where what “foreign devils” that exist in the popular imagination are from China and Japan, so I’d assume Korea has no xenophobia or colonial resentments complicating the drug wars–but I don’t know that for sure.

    Maybe it’s just because I’ve read up on William Booth lately and so have an exaggerated view of his importance, but I would have liked to see more than a passing comment about the “social changes and projects for dealing with poverty”. When you look closely at the work of the Salvation Army and similar groups, some of the conservative/progressive dichotomy breaks down. The SA were people who were profoundly conservative morally, yet were very modern in their techniques and seen as a destabilizing force by many (but not all) in government, the established church. Even some local police abused the SA, looking the other way as thugs stoned them in the streets or broke up their meetings, because the SA disrupted settled (and corrupt) arrangements in miserably poor neighborhoods. Oh, and women were very active in the highest levels of leadership of the SA–I doubt either “Mother” Catherine Booth or “General” Evangeline Booth were particularly upset by women who “transgressed social norms”; they were too busy transgressing those norms themselves and recruiting gin-swilling prostitutes into their Army.

    The specter of widespread alcoholism among children was probably another motivator (and this is true even if you believe their fears were exaggerated). I have a bit of sympathy for people who panic when a new intoxicant becomes a fad. I agree that drug bans are deeply problematic, but they persist because they sort of, kind of, achieve the desired goal. Cocaine use declined after 1915 for decades, and the law arguably was a factor. Even alcohol prohibition in the US may have reduced drinking and drink-related problems, if you believe the this bit from the New York Times. I know that’s a controversial conclusion, and I’m sickened by the modern practice of filling US federal jails with drug felons, but maybe you could show a little appreciation for the horror that naturally attends watching people destroy themselves with addiction, and the desire to do something to “fix” this deeply vexing problem.

    1. Thanks for this information, Gord. There’s lots of fascinating stuff here. I didn’t know about role of alchemy in distilling spirits.

      No worries. I suspect in fact distilling may have been discovered multiple times independently, or maybe it’s a technology that spread slowly, quietly, like the stirrup and the sword, but given how long it’s been around in Asia, I’m guessing it probably wasn’t invented directly by European alchemists, now that I think about it.

      I wonder if you have looked into the Boxer rebellion and the resentment caused by the British pushing opium in China. I’ve heard from an Indian co-worker that many Hindus view alcohol as a very unwelcome side-effect of colonialism, so the same dynamic is at work in that country (but at a lower level, obviously). I know your focus is Korea where what “foreign devils” that exist in the popular imagination are from China and Japan, so I’d assume Korea has no xenophobia or colonial resentments complicating the drug wars–but I don’t know that for sure.

      I have looked into the Boxer Rebellion, but not too deeply… I was always more into the Taiping Rebellion, which was contemporary to (and, IIRC, then continued after) the Opium War. Of course, the Taiping Rebellion was also anti-imperialist, since the Qing were perceived by most Chinese as a foreign imperial dynasty. (They were Manchurian invaders, after all.) The Taiping is interesting because it parallels the Opium war: the religious types who brought in Christianity hoped it would spread like wildfire–like opium addiction, indeed–and it did, among the Taiping… but in a bizarre, remixed, particularly Chinese form that included within it a certain degree of disdain for things in the Western cultural sphere that didn’t jibe with Christianity to their minds. (Western Kings were ridiculous, especially since Jesus’ little brother was now walking the Earth, in the form of their leader, Hong Xiuquan. Why wouldn’t Westerners bow to him? Silly Westerners.)

      As for Korea and postcolonial resentments affecting the drug wars… well, funnily enough, I know for a fact marijuana was more common in the past, and have heard stories of confiscated pot being burned in bonfires during the Park dictatorship… and government employees showing up at the bonfires to, ahem, “supervise.” (Makes one ponder just how much of what was smoked in those huge pipes of old might have been pot, in fact: it would explain the descriptions of men lounging about all day that we find in some books of early non-Korean visitors to the peninsula.) Like buggery between widowers and young lads–something people apparently turned a blind eye to in villages in the old days–it’s something that just was left out of the history books most people read. That said, I got the sense that pot and other drugs were seen as a Western decadence. Speed has much more social cachet in Korea–a bigger place in that culture’s imaginary of the illicit, as one might say–which is pretty telling, really.

      And as for alcohol, well… the idea of alcoholism hasn’t rely reached Korea in a useful way. People do have a word for it, but it seems to be alcoholic one must be homeless, jobless, and having lost one’s family. A lot of what Westerners would regard as classic alcoholism is actually normative, or even socially expected in some lines of work, within Korean society. (Which, well, the West only recognized alcoholism as affecting business in the 1970s, if I remember what I’ve read correctly. That was when AA programs started being set up and employers began encouraging employees to attend.) My impression is that alcoholism is pretty widespread in Korea, and essentially unaddressed, and like in the Gin Craze, it’s a form of self-medication for other social issues that parallel the situation in London in the first half of the 18th century.

      Which is to say: a recent economic disaster (IMF/South Sea Company’s stock collapse); widespread effective poverty (debt); unpleasant working conditions; rootlessness of mass numbers of people moving to a single central urban center; a government with little interest in the needs and aspirations of the common folk; and plenty of other things. That was what the original Gin Lane / Soju-Ro posts were going to be about, but…

      Maybe it’s just because I’ve read up on William Booth lately and so have an exaggerated view of his importance, but I would have liked to see more than a passing comment about the “social changes and projects for dealing with poverty”. When you look closely at the work of the Salvation Army and similar groups, some of the conservative/progressive dichotomy breaks down.

      Of that, I have very, very little doubt: hell, politics in this day doesn’t really map well onto Right and Left… nor, I sometimes suspect, does it apply well in our own day, so far have we backslid (and so far gone are so many problems where positions are informed vs. stupid and left vs. right have nothing to do with it, like Climate Change). Religion and social radicalism are deeply linked in those times, and, like in Korea, the whole political spectrum is so far to the right in some ways that it’s almost nonsensical to talk about a right and left within that context. It’s just not the most useful axis to consider.

      Also, the presence of women in the movement–not a surprise. I think because any new movement or niche immediately attracted women, because of how many barriers existed in all the established niches. (Gin-selling, too, for that matter, attracted women for the same reason, just as did stock-buying… to those women’s chagrin when the South Sea Company’s stock bubble burst.)

      I would like to read more about the SA: what would you recommend?

      The specter of widespread alcoholism among children was probably another motivator (and this is true even if you believe their fears were exaggerated).

      Yeah, Patrick Dillon pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the real problems that Gin caused. One famous case (that was recounted time and time again) involved a woman whose daughter had just been given some new clothing by a charitable soul.The woman and her friend, hammered on gin, took the girl into a field, stripped her bare, and tied her up, leaving her hidden in a ditch. The girl cried, so they returned and tied a rope round her neck, and tightened it a bed, supposedly to stop the crying from being so loud. That didn’t work, so a few times in succession they tightened it till she stopped… then went and sold the clothes for a pittance that they used to buy some gin. The poor little girl (of three years old, I think it was), was of course found dead — strangled by the rope — the next day.

      It’s just one case, but it does show why the upper classes panicked. Though, as Dillon also points out, the upper classes were as likely to be constantly drunk too… just on nicer alcohols, on brandy punch and the like.

      I have a bit of sympathy for people who panic when a new intoxicant becomes a fad. I agree that drug bans are deeply problematic, but they persist because they sort of, kind of, achieve the desired goal. Cocaine use declined after 1915 for decades, and the law arguably was a factor. Even alcohol prohibition in the US may have reduced drinking and drink-related problems, if you believe the this bit from the New York Times. I know that’s a controversial conclusion, and I’m sickened by the modern practice of filling US federal jails with drug felons, but maybe you could show a little appreciation for the horror that naturally attends watching people destroy themselves with addiction, and the desire to do something to “fix” this deeply vexing problem.

      Well, that’s the thing, though: I don’t appreciate it. I don’t appreciate it because while the question of what to do is very, very difficult, prohibition has been demonstrated time and again not to work. Gin production went up when gin was banned; alcohol prohibition in the USA was only really effectively true for the poor: Dillon mentions posh clubs buying big supplies (in one case, big enough for a decade and a half!) just before the law came into effect. The Prohibitions are, he points out, really more about horror at rapid social change, and about imposing controls on a class of people because they’re not behaving the way the people with power would prefer.

      I’d argue that the Prohibition, in decimating brewing culture and leaving only a few small breweries making tasteless product (megabrew lager) exacerbated the drinking problems in the same way the crapification of soju in Korea during the Park era did. (When it became law that soju be made with ethanol from industrial byproduct instead of from rice, as had been traditional). In both cases, creating a market dominated by unpleasurable, tasteless booze encouraged people to drink for drunkeness alone, not for pleasure.

      And, ultimately, because Prohibition is about social control, it creates many criminal niches. It might get more effective with advanced technologies or techniques, but this just forces criminals to get smarter. (I agree, the filling of American prisons with drug felons is disgusting, but I think it’s much more about creating a population of slave labor in the modern world.) The desire to “fix” this vexing problem, though, is problematic because to fix it would mean addressing real social problems–and throwing money at them would be necessary. But so would coming to terms with the fact that human beings are frail, are easily fucked-up, are often inestimably hungry and prone to dependency. And that would, by common sense, force people to admit these things about themselves… including those who are addicted hopelessly to religion, to sex, to pornography, and the rest.

      These weaknesses, dependencies, and susceptibilities are so countercultural to admit — even in our sensitive, compassionate times — that I rather think it’d be easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle.

      But even so, I can’t summon up much sympathy for those who seek to ban, because, it seems to me, at bottom what they really seek is to control. The people who want to make this or that drug illegal usually don’t give a damn about the poor addicts… and if they did, they would be willing to look at other approaches to dealing with their society’s drug problem. The advances made in places like Spain in recent years suggest what a sensible, logical, and more compassionate approach to dealing with this problem would look like. The fact that the US (and plenty of other places) hasn’t adopted that kind of approach, even given the evidence of its efficacy, suggests that the urge to prohibit and control is rooted in an emotional reaction, as you suggest… but, I think, one darker than you seem willing to credit above.

      (Hence the leniency on rich white drug addicts, for one thing.)

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