How a Gin Craze in London Led to The First Vending Machine

Gin has a longstanding association with the city of London, though it has gone in and out of fashion over time. A recent resurgence in popularity has led the UK’s Office for National Statistics to add gin back to a list of products it uses to measure inflation. While the spirit is thought of as distinctly English, it actually originated in Holland and was brought over by King William III, also known as William of Orange, when he ascended to the English throne in 1688.

At that time, England and France were in conflict. To discourage the purchase and consumption of French brandy, the English government imposed on it a heavy duty and lifted restrictions on domestic production of spirits like gin. Drinking gin became patriotic and it certainly benefitted the landowners in Parliament who were then able to more easily sell their surplus of grain. Because of that surplus and several years of good harvests, everyday people could afford more food and to spend extra money on things like alcohol. Despite having that bit of extra money, working-class people still lived dismal, depressing lives and gin offered a cheap reprieve.

That gin was so cheap in large part because it was low-quality. The original "jenever" from Holland was not at all what most Londoners were drinking. Instead, they consumed a concoction which sometimes contained things like turpentine and sulphuric acid said to improve upon the harsh taste. These ingredients and the exceptionally high alcoholic content of that gin could cause blindness, poisoning, and even death. Still, it sometimes felt safer than drinking the city’s water, which was terribly polluted. This all led to excessive consumption of gin amongst the working class - estimated at more than six gallons per person per year in the 1740s. Historian Lesley Jacobs Solmonson even claims that "at any given time one out of every four residents - essentially all of the city’s poor - was completely and utterly incoherent". The result was a moral panic.

This was particularly because of gin’s association with women. Beer, the next most popular drink of the time, was usually consumed in ale houses and taverns which were male spaces. Gin, on the other hand, was being sold in gin shops which could be both run and frequented by women. The proliferation of intoxicated women on the streets of London created concern for their children, who could be born with defects and then neglected by their drunk mothers. Gin became known as "mother’s ruin" as well as "Ladies Delight", "Madame Geneva", and "Mother Gin". This all peaked in 1734 when a woman named Judith Defour took her two-year-old daughter Mary from a workhouse, strangled her, then sold her new clothes to buy gin. This incident received a great deal of attention in the press and there were other similarly unfortunate stories. There were even cautionary tales of women who drank so much gin they spontaneously combusted! I suspect those stories may not have been entirely true.

Aside from concerns about degenerate mothers, there were also concerns about national prosperity. The upper classes saw gin as reducing productivity among workers, thus slowing their economy and their weapons production during wartime. Much of the worry about the working class over-consuming gin was actually a desire to maintain old social orders. The rich saw the poor as less deferential than in the past, getting above themselves, and it was felt that the working class did not deserve luxuries like alcohol. Gin was also associated with groups gathering to protest the social order as well as increased crime in London.

Hogarth's "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane", currently on display at the British Museum.

These prints seen above were created by William Hogarth as a piece of propaganda meant to encourage the more respectable consumption of beer and to discourage the ruinous consumption of gin.

The first significant Parliamentary effort to reduce gin consumption was the Gin Act of 1736. It increased the taxes on drinks being sold and required licenses to be purchased by those producing and selling it. These licenses were too expensive for most people and only two licenses were taken out over the next few years. Illegal production ramped up. To fight against this, the government began paying informants £5 apiece to report the illegal distillers. This only led to riots and conflict in the poorer neighborhoods, with informants being harshly beaten.

"Puss and Mew", Beefeater Gin Distillery

The 1736 Gin Act also led to more creative methods of selling gin. Laws prohibited the distilling of gin within the home, but unless your door was open to patrons, police officers did not have the authority to enter your home. One London resident named Dudley Bradstreet saw the opportunity in this loophole and created the "Puss and Mew". To an outside wall he attached a statue of a cat (as seen at right) with a pipe protruding from under its paw. A customer would walk up to the cat, say "puss" into its open mouth, and hear "mew" in response. They would then put their money through the mouth hole and gin would be poured through the pipe. This is now considered the first vending machine.

The Gin Craze in London did eventually end due to a combination of another Gin Act in 1751 and a few years of bad harvests which led to a ban on distilling grain. Gin made a comeback beginning in 1830 when it became more expensive than beer for the first time in over a century, and gin-makers had to find a way to make it more appealing. They built "gin palaces" all over London, making the drink more glamorous and influencing the way we still think of gin today.