Equating gin and crack cocaine is a perilous historical parallel

On Books

October 13, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

The phenomenon of the mass craze -- "an insane or irrational fancy, a mania," according to the OED -- often combines the unknown or near-unknown with what, in retrospect, seems like inevitability. Who could have predicted, say, the Hula Hoop? The Pet Rock? On the very dark side, lynchings have blighted U.S. history.

A provocative foray into the phenomenon is Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, by Jessica Warner (Four Walls Eight Windows, 264 pages, $24.95). This gin craze occurred in London, between 1720 and 1751. "Gin was the original urban drug," Warner writes. "Cheap, potent, and readily available, it met the needs of an urban population, numbing countless thousands to the fatigue, hunger, and cold that were the lot of London's working poor."

Wine and beer had been made since pre-history, but alcoholic spirits were first distilled in the early 1100s in Italy. Grape-based brandy then was used medicinally in small quantities for centuries. In the 16th century, people in non-grape-growing places, including Britain, learned to make distilled spirits from mash grains. Gin, made by redistilling malt spirits with juniper berries, began in Holland in the mid 1600s. The mass-market gin of that time had little in common with present day gin. It was made from the cheapest ingredients and often flavored by anything that would mask foul odors.

(Yes, eight or 10 times a year now, I drink a martini, a genuine one -- 5 parts gin to 1 part good dry Vermouth, unless the gin is particularly aromatic one, when the ratio may fall toward 10 to 1. It is straight up in a traditional martini glass, stirred, not shaken.)

Annual per capita gin consumption in London quadrupled between 1720 and 1730, and about doubled again in the next decade. It was vastly stronger than beer and ale, the common drinks for centuries -- and it was destroying livelihoods, and lives. In the period the book addresses, the vast preponderance of gin consumed in London was sold in unlicensed shops, from mobile street stalls or by peddlers, from baskets, wheelbarrows or boats.

Early in the book, Warner, a history professor at the University of Toronto, draws a parallel between the gin war in London in the 1700s and modern drug wars. The connection, I found, was contrived and unconvincing -- a serious failing in an otherwise quite fascinating book.

Warner has done impressive research -- a beneficiary of the genius of the English for keeping historic records. She recalls details of revenues and numbers of fines in specific minor courts. She writes well. Seldom does the narrative bog down, though the details are intense. The book is a crisp, detailed review of the history of the place and period.

She gets enormous help from the eloquence and sometime hypocrisies of London's literary and political sets. In a pamphlet published in 1751, Henry Fielding -- that great novelist whose works included Tom Jones -- wrote that "Gin-shops are undoubtedly the Nurseries of all manner of Vice and Wickedness. There it is that old Practitioners in Roguery assemble, where meeting with young idle Fellows, who elope from their Parents, Friends or Masters, they instruct them in all the Arts and Tricks of their own Profession, which is, of robbing on the Highway, picking Pockets, forging Hands, breaking open Houses, Clipping and Coining and all other Crimes. . . ."

London's -- and gin's -- atmosphere was heavily charged by economics and politics. Warner writes of "Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) literary genius and quite possibly the greatest hack of all time. ... In 1726, he writes a pamphlet on behalf of London's Company of Distillers. . . Two years later he blames gin for almost all of the city's many problems."

There was much such hypocrisy. "Parliament passed a total of eight 'gin acts' between 1729 and 1751," Warner records. "In the end, none of them quite worked the way their framers had intended." Much of the opposition to gin and the movement to restrict its sale and consumption was elitist -- designed with condescension to encourage greater production of healthy babies for the labor force and military and to keep workers obedient.

London was huge -- 625,000 in population by 1750 -- while the rest of the nation and world were overwhelmingly rural. Young women came to London from the country, seeking jobs or husbands, and soon fell into the gin culture. "Mother Gin" and "Madame Geneva" were common terms for the stuff. Prostitution, thievery, crime in general rose around the drink.

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