Georgian glass. The rise and rise of gin and gin glasses in the 18th century

Gin glasses from the 18th century are readily available in spite of their considerable age, and exist in such numbers simply because the spirit was so inordinately popular during the five decades up to 1750. As a consequence of this obsessive and excessive consumption there were a large number of glasses in circulation from which the ruinous distillate could be taken, imbibed, swigged, quaffed or guzzled by its many devotees – a simple matter of supply meeting a not inconsiderable demand.

The spirit’s popularity stemmed – albeit indirectly – from the historical enmity between Britain and France, with the latter having been a significant source of the brandy which – throughout the course of the 17th century – had been the alcoholic solace of choice for English folk of pretty much any social standing. As the Grand Siècle entered its second half, however, the British government sought to deprive their Gallic foe of this particular revenue stream, preferring to extract money from the good people of these sceptered isles for their own ends. A number of legislative acts were drawn up, all of which had the intention of restricting the import of brandy whilst at the same time encouraging the production of English gin.

The spirit was already popular amongst the more august circles of English society as a result of the growing Dutch influence within our Royal family at the time, and the desire to affect similar preferences in order to appear in touch with very latest foibles of such illustrious folk. Gin had long been established as almost the national drink in The Netherlands, albeit under its original name of “jenever”. This provenance gave rise to the fact that it was often referred to as Holland Gin or just “Hollands”, as can be evidenced from the many engraved glasses or decanter labels which exist from the period.

As production of the home-grown spirit escalated at the behest of the government, so the price of the commodity crashed and London in particular was soon plunged into what was to become known as “The Gin Craze”. The lower classes in particular become fervent and fevered consumers, with local authorities noting that gin was the principal cause of “all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”. With the pernicious liquor rendering much of the capital’s working population incapable of pretty much anything of consequence, Government was prompted to implement an abrupt about-turn in an effort to minimise the inebriating effects of their Francophobic machinations. Retailers were required to obtain licenses, distillers similarly regulated and the product itself had ever more punitive taxes applied. However, rather predictably, the trade simply went underground to circumvent such penalties, which resulted in the illicit mashes becoming stronger, yet more debilitating and increasingly addictive and dangerous.

Eventually, after five decades of unparalleled drunkenness, another round of legislation began to take effect with more reasonably-priced licenses encouraging the growth of legitimate taxable outlets. As luck would have it, the livers of the nation were further spared by a succession of poor harvests, that pushed up the price of grain and hence of the gin itself, which became too expensive to allow the previously unfettered consumption to continue at its relentless and reckless pace.
However, the British taste for gin had by now been firmly etched in to the public consciousness, and it remained an extraordinarily popular liquor, requiring the manufacture of a great many glasses to satisfy its legions of consumers who were unable to break the habit and still willing to commit a decent proportion of their disposable income on obtaining it regardless of cost.

The gin glasses themselves tended to be conical and fairly simply presented. As with anything that had an appeal across the broader social spectrum, though, there were glasses intended for use by both the more discerning gentlemen and those of lesser status, so there are both lavishly decorated and utterly plain examples to be found ¬with all the conceivable intermediate incarnations amply catered for at the same time. We are left, therefore, with a varied order of glassware which has a broad and rather non-specific remit with regard to appearance, but which remains eminently collectable nonetheless given its place in the van of British social history.

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