Though alcohol was nothing new in London, gin was special in the way it attracted women both to the trade and to the drink itself (bootleggers sold their ware under names such as Ladies Delight). Indeed, gin selling was one of the few ways a single woman could make money.
Gin was personified as Madame Genever/mother Genever/ Queen Genever. This figure mirrored in some ways the sober figure of Britannia. She was a woman who would fire up those fighting for Britain. The figure had a strong cultural presence and, though Hogarth depicts her as a boozy old lady who forgets her child, she was affectionately regarded. After the Act of 1736 people across the city held funerals for her.
However, there were many negative associations drawn between women and gin. The anonymous author of ‘A dissertation of Mr Hogarth’s six prints’ (1751) wrote,
If a woman accustoms herself to dram drinking she…becomes the most miserable as well as the most contemptible creature on earth.
There were some particularly unpleasant problems associated with mothers, nurses, and gin – not for nothing was gin known as ‘mother’s ruin’. For example, there is a horrible story that, at a christening, a nurse grew so drunk she put the baby on the fire instead of a log. There were also reports of babies being born deformed or blackened. Another event, in 1734, which caused public outcry was a mother who was convicted of strangling her two-year-old son, dumping his body in a ditch and selling his clothes for gin. This is, of course, the extreme.
In Hogarth’s Gin Lane, the illustrator focuses on the problems cause by the bad relationship between women and their gin. Not only is the central character in the process of letting her infant fall to its death but to the right of the illustration a mother can be seen tipping gin into her baby’s mouth.
The paper poking out of the starving man’s basket reads ‘The downfall of Mrs. Gin’.
One of the women at the pawn shop can be seen to be rejecting her role as provider for her family by pawning her kettle and pots so she will no longer be able to cook.
Were drunk women really such a problem? Or were people just upset that they were taking part in a man’s game? One thing’s for sure, selling your child for alcohol is definitely not recommended.
In this series the following have been very useful: In Our Time’s ‘The Gin Craze’, Gin The Manual by Dan Broom, and ‘How a Gin Craze Nearly Destroyed 18th-Century London’ by Harry Sword on http://www.munchies.vice.com.