DRUNKEN EXCESS – BY ORDER OF HIS MAJESTY’S GOVERNMENT (YET AGAIN!)
The close of our last missive left the gin-sodden inebriates of England’s Regency quite literally floundering in the gutter, with the take-away trade of gin shops dispensing doses of their debilitating spirit to all comers in vast quantities, having provided a glimpse of what was to follow by way of the sheer volume of patrons they were able to service and assuage.
Having first stripped down the premises – and premise – by which gin was sold, minimising expenditure on fripperies such as seating and tables in favour of reducing the process to a virtual production line – it was time for a radical change in direction. The squalid gin shops were to suffer the same fate as did the expansionist ideas of Napoleon, swept aside at the same point in history which saw Tiddy Doll shattered at Waterloo.
It became apparent to the licensed victuallers of England that for every penny spent on gin by the working classes, a wealthier clientele would spend significantly more, and the pursuit of this bourgeois coin hastened the fourth phase of the country’s gin craze. It was reasoned, quite properly, that a higher class of establishment would attract a higher class of customer, and so decadent, extravagant venues suddenly became the new arena for gin’s interminable struggle with the abstemious fortitude of the Englishman (as ever, genever was to win hands down). Ostentatious gin palaces sprung up the length and breadth of the country, designed by leading architects, fitted out with the same lavish care as the most elegant of country houses or bombastic club lounges, and sited at prime locations on the main thoroughfares of affluent towns and cities.
As ever, government played its ill-advised part in proceedings, with a reduction in the duty on spirits which was intended to deter the still-rampant malaise of smuggling being applied in 1825. This seemed a sensible enough initiative – but it’s probably fair to say it was implemented a little clumsily, with a swingeing 40% reduction in tax prompting an almost instantaneous doubling of consumption. The most successful gin palaces were now serving up to fifteen thousand penny shots of the stuff every hour during the course of busy evenings – the production line had been honed to perfidious perfection!
This near-mechanical expediting of gin sales, of course, mirrored the manner in which so many other processes were made more efficient by mechanisation during the industrial revolution, including the production of glassware. As we have mentioned, the early 19th century had already seen the introduction of mass-produced gin glasses which were able to approximate the hallmarks of handmade production by way of sliced cuts and polished facets. With the shift towards a more discerning customer base, these embellishments became more refined, and we are able to find examples from the mid 19th century with moulded facets, machine-tooled cutting and impressed patterns. Such developments may have been a boon to the glass producers of the day, who were able to feed a voracious market with increasing efficiency, but for the collector, well, I’m not so sure. There’s obviously some merit in tracking down an early example of such machine-made pieces from the point of view of demonstrating the transition from one production method to another – the inexorable march of progress and that sort of thing. To my mind though, there are only so many perfectly symmetrical knops, evenly-facetted bowls and entirely straight stems that you can regard before realising that they almost completely lack any of the ‘personality’ of those earlier, hand-crafted examples with their flaws and foibles, inclusions and inaccuracies. But then, I think I’d have preferred a dissolute gin shop to a preposterous palace, given the choice, so – as ever – I’m probably best ignored….