Alcohol and the Upper Classes



Drink often serves as a barometer of the health of an individual, class or society. - Thomas Brennan2

As the above quote suggests, an excess of alcohol consumption was seen as a mark of deep-rooted malady, or social degeneration. It is a cycle where the drunkenness is an outcome of this moral degradation, but also a cause, in the sense that alcohol was used as a means of escape from poverty associated troubles, but also gave rise to more of these problems. In his work The Condition of the Working Class, Engels felt that the consumption of alcohol was responsible for the "increased exploitation of laborers, breakdown of communal life and demoralization of working class."3

The average French worker was portrayed as an excess alcohol consumer by the upper classes. Workers were said to get drunk at every possible occasion, including Sundays. They usually gathered at public drinking places: taverns, pubs, cabarets and drank the night away. This is prevalent in the 1770s. As Sébastien Mercier put it, the public drinking places were the "receptacle of the dregs of the populace."4 The primary objection seemed to be the prevalence of alcoholism, or inebriety as it was called then. This was first noticed by wine historian Roger Dion, and elaborated by Bernard de Laffemas at a later time. They attributed the rise of alcoholism to an increase in the problems plaguing Europe in that period. With poverty being the foremost of these, alcoholism was considered a working class problem. As stated in the work of 18th century French magistrate Duchesne, "the low price of wine means that the common people are drawn into cabarets…leave their work, their business, and become miserable."5 The quote reflects the dominant perception of the time, where moral decay was blamed on this working class alcoholism.

As in modern times, alcohol gave rise to a host of other problems. The development of cabarets, most of which were located in urban areas, as centers of public drinking led to an increase in prostitution and crime. When " alcohol was taxed, retailers resorted to bribing of tax officials and smuggling in order to evade it. Many of the poor drank on credit, resorting to theft and robbery to pay of unpaid tabs. Alcohol was a factor in the rise in domestic violence, and the general loss of self-control ("idleness, blasphemy, homicides, and other damage and harm which comes from drunkenness."6 ) A major concern was the neglect of responsibility, particularly family and work and/or business. Alcoholism also led to the severance of marital ties. Husbands were blamed for negligence by their spouses, and usually the property was divided in favor of the victim of an alcoholic spouse.