A tart, acute inquiry into the mania for gin that coursed through London during the early part of the 18th century.
Warner (History/Univ. of Toronto) gives her savvy investigation a second, deeper dimension as a parable about drugs: why some take them and others worry when they do. From 1720 until 1751, the drug of choice for London’s working poor was gin. It was cheap, potent, and readily available to numb the fatigue, hunger, and cold that were their lot, the author explains. By no means was gin a universal blessing to the proletariat, but equally by no means was it concern for proletarian health that rallied the moral reformers of the day. Rather, Warner suggests convincingly, during a period of prosperity and peace in London, reformers were motivated by “lurking fear that ostentation on the part of the poor might blur the outward signs of class and privilege” (liquor had heretofore been the province of the wealthy) and strove to “make them play by the rules of their social superiors.” On the other side were the vast majority of London’s landowners and politicians, who found in gin a valuable market for their surplus grain and a ready source of tax money. They also were well aware that the rickety English social system depended on the people’s willingness to defer to an elite that, before the advent of a modern police force, was otherwise powerless to control them. The stink of various self-serving moral agendas (a couple modern examples are nimbly exploited by Warner) get a proper and gratifying airing here. Warfare on the continent and in the colonies made tax revenues more important than moral purity; then a slump in grain production and wages depressed by a burgeoning labor force made gin too dear for the working poor, and it was back to the alehouse for them.
Social history at its gimlet-eyed best. (Illustrations throughout)