Drunkenness was only one of many outcomes or reasons that Victorian and Edwardian consumers had for drinking. The desire for intoxication, the multitude of ways to seek intoxication and the range of intoxicated behaviour was infinitely more complex because it was deeply entangled within the social and cultural context in which alcohol was produced and consumed. Questions about alcohol consumption drove parliamentary enquiries, shaped the commercial practices of alcohol producers and sparked debates within the medical profession. The Victorians knew that the problems of alcohol co-existed with the pleasures of drinking and that if alcohol remained a legal intoxicant then the freedom to drink ultimately rested with consumers. While consumer agency existed, people’s reasons for drinking alcohol varied and were influenced by broader political, commercial, medical and cultural factors.
Drunkenness was only one of many outcomes or reasons that Victorian and Edwardian consumers had for drinking. The desire for intoxication, the multitude of ways to seek intoxication and the range of intoxicated behaviour was infinitely more complex because it was deeply entangled within the social and cultural context in which alcohol was produced and consumed. When Brian Harrison wrote Drink and the Victorians he was not particularly concerned with the motives of alcohol consumers and many subsequent historical studies followed suit. The Victorians were however concerned with the motives of alcohol consumers. Questions about alcohol consumption drove parliamentary enquiries, shaped the commercial practices of alcohol producers and sparked debates within the medical profession. The Victorians knew that the problems of alcohol co-existed with the pleasures of drinking and that if alcohol remained a legal intoxicant then the freedom to drink ultimately rested with consumers. While consumer agency existed, people’s reasons for drinking alcohol varied and were influenced by broader political, commercial, medical and cultural factors.
The ‘great army’ of drinkers signalled the beginnings of a consumer society and a mass market for alcohol. Industrial scale brewing and distilling coupled with the rapid expansion of the alcohol retail trade generated more choice for consumers but also fuelled political concerns about widespread drunkenness in towns and cities across Britain. If large sections of the population consumed large volumes of alcohol then it must have seemed logical to expect large amounts of drunkenness. Yet the evidence given at the parliamentary commissions on alcohol suggested that people found it difficult to pin down one universal definition of drunkenness since ideas about drunkenness varied regionally and were largely dependent upon the ‘three Ds’—the drinker, the type of drink consumed and the drinking location. Alcohol was certainly a route to intoxication but the witness testimonies at the parliamentary enquiries suggest that drunkenness was not the only outcome. This was most evident in the accounts of working-class men’s drinking behaviour linked to occupations in the heavy industries and manufacturing. These men were thought to work hard and drink hard and this type of drinking was largely accepted. The public drinking habits of the urban working classes were subjected to moral scrutiny and witnesses gave evidence of large numbers of drinkers frequenting pubs. Working-class Victorians had a vibrant drinking culture with a wide choice of venues and types of drinks. Implicit in the evidence given by police officials was the idea that some public drinking was harmless and that a degree of pragmatism was needed in policing drunkenness. Although less attention was given to the private drinking habits of the working-class men it was largely accepted that some alcohol consumption was normal, for example drinking dinner beer with the evening meal. The Edwardians study offered greater insights into working-class men’s drinking that revolved around family life and daily routines. Working-class fathers sometimes visited the pub in the evenings or stayed at home and drank with their wives. The Worktown study focused on working-class pubs and explored some of the reasons men had for consuming alcohol. It showed that drinking behaviour was to some extent shaped by ideas about working-class masculinity.
The parliamentary enquiries were much less concerned with the drinking habits of middle and upper-class men and often the only insights came from the committee members who were alcohol consumers. The heated exchange between the Bishop of Peterborough and Reverend Burns of the UK Alliance during the 1877 enquiry, cut to the core of the debate about the extent of alcohol controls. The very idea of alcohol prohibition was an assault on masculinity because it infringed upon the rights of men (all men and not just working-class men) to consume alcohol. Controlling and restricting the sale of alcohol was one thing but stopping men from drinking in the privacy of their own homes or clubs was, to men like the Bishop, simply absurd. When examining the records of the London Clubs it was clear that alcohol consumption was imagined in a very different way where the status of alcohol was elevated to that of a valued cultural commodity. Bourdieu’s ideas about the links between consumption and social class were most evident within the London Clubs where purchasing and consuming particular types of alcoholic drinks demonstrated levels of cultural capital. 1 Victorian men of all social classes were free to drink alcohol because ideas about male drinking and drunkenness were framed by larger debates about liberty versus state control and in a highly patriarchal society the biological and moral freedom to drink alcohol resided with men.
Yet men were not the only alcohol consumers. Women of all social classes drank alcohol. The political enquiries dwelt upon women’s drinking—whether it was working-class women drinking out in public or middle and upper-class women drinking ‘secretly’ in private, it did not seem matter because all women’s drinking was deemed problematic. Some witnesses and committee members simply believed that women were worse drunks than men. Yet the interviewees in The Edwardians study gave a different account of women’s drinking that was viewed as a part of everyday life. Working-class women made and sometimes sold their own home-brewed alcohol. They drank to socialise or celebrate or sometimes for health during pregnancy and after childbirth. In some regions women drank in pubs or drank at home with their husbands. Middle and upper-class women also drank alcohol as part of everyday life. Dining and entertaining were occasions when it was socially acceptable for higher-class women to consume alcohol for pleasure. The issue of the male gaze—or male power and control exerted over women, may have influenced attitudes towards drinking but it did not curtail women’s alcohol consumption. The political and medical concern about grocer’s licences demonstrates that some women seized upon the opportunity to buy and consume alcohol for their own private purposes. Working-class women employed in factories and poorer working-class women etching out a living on the margins of society drank alcohol publicly and blatantly. If viewed within the context of women’s oppression or conversely women’s emancipation, alcohol consumption fits within de Certeau’s ideas about a consumer grid of resistance. 2 In this sense, alcohol presented a way for some women to challenge or escape male authority.
The Victorians and Edwardians drank for pleasure but they also drank for pain. The use of alcohol as a treatment in medical practice continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was prescribed for a range of physiological and psychological illnesses and Victorians admitted to hospitals sometimes received treatment with certain types of alcoholic drinks. Debates existed within the medical profession about the efficacy and ethics of prescribing alcohol and there were concerns about therapeutic nihilism—that alcohol did more harm than good, not only to patients but also to professional reputation. Yet it remained an orthodox medical treatment and people held faith in alcohol as a medicine. Some interviewees in The Edwardians study described their mothers drinking stout during pregnancy or after childbirth because they believed it was nourishing and acted as a tonic. The idea of self-medicating with alcohol may have alarmed the medical profession but it was popular among alcohol consumers and this meant that the health benefits of alcohol held enormous commercial value to the drink trade. Marketing alcohol as a tonic was one way to reach consumers and boost sales during a period when the drink trade faced moral and political hostility. By simply rebranding products to include the word ‘tonic’ on labels, alcohol producers boosted the market and ensured increased sales. The boom in tonic wine sales at the end of the century could not have happened without a receptive consumer market. People had faith in alcohol as a therapeutic drug so all that companies had to do was market products that could treat and prevent a wide range of illnesses. Drinking alcohol for health was not the same as drinking it for pleasure or for intoxication. Consumers could, therefore, drink alcohol ‘for health’ in a socially acceptable way and the drink trade could sell an intoxicant under the guise of a tonic.
Selling alcohol was a tricky business in the late nineteenth century and in order to be successful, companies had to beat the competition, reach a wide market of consumers and sell them something other than an intoxicating substance overshadowed by the spectre of the drunkard. Fortunately for alcohol producers, the capitalist system supported such practices. Baudrillard’s analysis of the manufacturing of needs and desires through advertising and marketing is useful when considering the position of alcohol in the late nineteenth century. 3 If alcohol was only understood in terms of its basic function then it was a potentially dangerous intoxicant that could cause drunkenness and social ruin. If however, it came to symbolise something else, something desirable, then its basic function changed. The challenge for alcohol producers and retailers was to reinvent the substance as something other than a mere intoxicant and James Buchanan did this very successfully with Scotch whisky, which became a drink of the elites. By ensuring that those in positions of power and prestige conspicuously consumed his products, it was possible to turn a common alcoholic drink into a highly desirable cultural commodity. Other alcohol producers such as Bass and Walker also used marketing strategies that created desires and gave consumers reasons to drink their products other than for the purposes of intoxication.
For many people in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, consuming alcohol meant more than simply mainlining intoxication. Alcohol was both an ordinary and an extraordinary substance that constituted an integral part of everyday life. As dinner beer it was the antidote to the toils of the working day. As Scotch, fine wine or champagne it was a marker of social class status. In the hands of the medical profession or indeed commercial interests it was a panacea. In the mouths of women it was a subversive substance. People had many different reasons for drinking other than the desire for intoxicated oblivion. Yet sometimes this was precisely the reason for consuming alcohol. Drunkenness prevailed throughout the Victorian and Edwardian periods just as it does today. The real problem with alcohol is the one alluring quality of the substance—it gets people drunk. Alcohol can therefore be viewed in the same way that Klein considers cigarettes—as a dark, dangerous and sublime intoxicant. 4 The desire for intoxication drives alcohol production and consumption and motivates alcohol consumers to drink in many different ways and for many different reasons.
Bourdieu P. 1984/2010. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste: London: Routledge.
de Certeau M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life: Berkeley: University of California Press.
Baudrillard J. 2003. ‘The Ideological Genesis of Needs’, in (eds.) Clarke D. B., Doel M., and Housiaux K. The Consumption Reader: London: Routledge: pp. 255–259.
Klein R. 1993. Cigarettes Are Sublime: London: Duke University Press.
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