Picked up on Broadway

It seems appropriate to post my final addiction-themed post of the year on New Year’s Eve. I’m already anticipating the usual New Year’s Day article decrying the scenes in Britain’s towns and cities, amply illustrated with photos of young women in high heels slumped on benches and on the edge of pavements (the Daily Mail seem to do this each year like clockwork).

The trope of the woman collapsed in the street, worse the wear for drink or other substances, isn’t a new one, nor is it confined to Britain. In 1897 a number of American newspapers carried a piece entitled Picked up on Broadway, vividly describing an incident in which a woman was found unconscious in the street and hurried to the nearest hospital. Once there she was discovered ‘to be covered with sores caused by the hypodermic injection of morphine’, which she had begun taking to relieve the pains of a uterine disorder. The piece was accompanied by an illustration of the woman’s collapse: helped up by a male passer-by, her eyes downcast, one arm propping herself up on the pavement, the other held limply in her lap. By her side lie the packages she has dropped in her fall. In the background, another man advances towards the scene to help and a woman raises a hand to her mouth in shocked fascination.

Picked Up on Broadway mod

Picked up on Broadway was not a news item, however, but a cleverly presented advert for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a ‘herbal’ tonic for women (which incidentally contained a rather heady 20.6% alcohol, a not unusual constituent of late 19th-century medicinal ‘tonics’). The text went on to explain that had the lady in the story – once a successful employee of a New York publishers – used Pinkham’s Compound she would now be sitting happily in her office, ‘a well woman’. A similarly-constructed advert of the period, for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, positioned the pellets as alternatives to women’s too-frequent recourse to addictive ‘headache powders’. (An interesting reversal of the trend was an 1890 advert for Duffey’s Pure Malt Whiskey, presented in the form of a conversation with a doctor who advised women to keep up their strength with the whisky between meals – an advert that didn’t escape the attention of temperance activists.)


Headline of an 1895 advert for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets.

The figure of the lady slumped on the pavement in Picked up on Broadway mirrored the ‘unfeminine pose’ often used by Victorian temperance authors. Rachel McErlain in Women and Alcohol: Social Perspectives (2015) contends that images of drunken women being carried from public houses on stretchers, for example,  ‘shock[ed] the viewer … [and] reinforce[d] the message that female intoxication [was] dramatically different from normative feminine bodily practice’. The depiction of the woman collapsed on the pavement could be a powerful shaming practice, drawing attention to the drinking or drug-taking woman as deviant, but also capitalising on the public appetite for sensation. Adverts such as Picked up on Broadway, or those for Dr. Pierce’s Pellets, could serve a double purpose: critiquing the behaviour of the modern woman and at the same time selling a product to the reader. I’d be interested to know how far 19th-century readers of these ads actually considered the problem of drug use or drinking in any depth, or if – like those being pleasingly shocked by images of more modern New Year’s Eve debauchery – it was simply a brief bit of entertainment.

‘Solitary midnight inebriates’: Alcohol and the professional man

V0019482 A man lies dead or unconscious in his chair, his last glass Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A man lies dead or unconscious in his chair, his last glass of drink fallen from his hand. Lithograph by Lamy, c. 1860, after Villain. 1860 By: Francois Le Villainafter: Pierre Auguste LamyPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A man lies dead or unconscious in his chair, his last glass of drink fallen from his hand. Lithograph by Lamy, c. 1860, after Villain. Wellcome Library, London.

I’ve been doing a lot of work on lady secret drinkers recently (such as the eau de cologne tipplers I devoted a previous post to), but a question from the audience at a talk I gave a few weeks ago reminded me that, somewhere in my office, was a file of other 19th-century problem drinkers – namely, male professionals.

Digging around in a filing cabinet, I found the surreptitious tipplers I was looking for. These were ‘respectable’ problem drinkers who occupied responsible positions – men who incorporated alcohol into their lives without their habit being obvious to the casual observer. Lawyers and their clerks were common points of concern. In 1871, the Saturday Review railed against what it termed ‘counting-house alcoholism’, declaring that ‘men who shr[a]nk from going to one of the public bars ha[d] no scruple about fitting up a neat mahogany cellar in their own office’ and all too often resorted to the ‘forenoon specific’ of a biscuit and a glass of sherry.

‘Soakers in the City’, as The Lancet called them, were said to be all too common, but there were also worries about those professional men whose habits were less easily detectable. Literary men, doctors, and the clergy were particularly at risk, as their intellectual labours overtaxed their brains, ruined their appetites, and disturbed their sleep, leading to the use of stimulants:

‘The clergyman, the Christian worker, or the physician, after an exhausting day spent, O, how wearily! in listening to long dreary accounts of interminable wrongs and ailments … is so prostrate that he cannot even look at the food which his badly used stomach so sorely needs… An intoxicating stimulant in a few seconds dissipates every sense of fatigue, seems to infuse new vigour into his veins, new life into his fainting spirit, so that he can sit down comfortably [and] heartily enjoy a good dinner.’

The above quote from an 1884 speech by Norman Kerr, President of the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety, highlights how alcohol was often used to revive a flagging body and tired mind. It was the frequent use of alcohol in this way, though, that led the scholar or doctor to become reliant upon his favourite tipple. Within discussions of the ‘solitary midnight inebriate’, clergymen were prominent figures, and their drinking habits special sources of shame considering their calling:

‘I can scarcely conceive of a state more miserable [wrote the doctor]. Secret intoxication lasting only for a night, to be followed in the morning by the semblance of normal life … Carrying with him the image of the scene he cannot forget, and yet wishing the hours to hasten on, that he may cast aside the mask, and, behind the locked door, the bottle, the drink, and the narcotism, may rest him again for another day.’

Drink had enveloped the clergyman in this case in a ‘moral mirage’, as the doctor put it. As people entrusted with the innermost secrets of their parishioners, the possibility that a member of the clergy might have a secret drinking habit was deeply concerning. One doctor related that he had treated several clergymen for alcoholism and that 90% of them had been led into the habit due to working too hard. Overwork was thought to affect many men involved in ‘brain work’ in the 19th century, and is a theme that frequently recurs throughout the Diseases of Modern Life project. In self-medicating with alcohol to meet the pressures of modern life, even the most well-intentioned individual could find themselves caught in a vicious cycle – much better, advised doctors, to reach for a handful of raisins or a glass of water than the brandy bottle when fatigue set in, as unenticing as those replacements may have been…

A patient dismayed at his doctor's advice not to drink any alcohol. Wood engraving by G. Du Maurier, 1875. Wellcome Library, London.

A patient dismayed at his doctor’s advice not to drink any alcohol. Wood engraving by G. Du Maurier, 1875. Wellcome Library, London.

‘Sweet oblivious antidotes’? Lady perfume drinkers of the late 19th century

In the early 1890s several writers suggested that a new fashion was taking hold among the urban women of Europe and America: drinking Eau de Cologne. Stories appeared in both medical journals and popular newspapers of women ingesting perfume in various ways – from the delicate act of swallowing ‘a dose of cologne dropped on loaf sugar’ to the unrestrained swigging of whole bottles of 4711. Mirroring recent anxieties about middle-class drinking habits, doctors and journalists emphasised that these cologne drinkers were usually well-to-do, wealthy, and respectable members of the community, sometimes even members of London ‘Society’.

A 19th-century bottle of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Image: Farina Archiv.

A 19th-century bottle of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Image: Farina Archiv.

Strange as the practice seemed, for the woman who wished to drink, perfume was a practical choice at a time when it was less acceptable for her to enter a pub and order herself a brandy. Perfume was a substance that women could legitimately – even ostentatiously – have in their possession. The bottle of Eau de Cologne that stood on the dressing table would excite no attention, unless – as in Recollections of a Country Doctor (1885) – it began to empty alarmingly quickly. The country doctor of the title, Dr Meredith, asks his lady patient what has happened to the new bottle of cologne he had seen on her dressing table the previous afternoon. The patient blames her maid, claiming she spilt it on the carpet, but the doctor presses on: “If that eau-de-cologne has been spilt on the table it must have left a mark on the polish … Why keep up this sort of humbug? Why not tell me you have drunk it?”

Eau de Cologne could be transported beyond the bedroom or house, allowing a lady to – as Lewis Barnett Fretz put it in ‘The Modern Duality’ – ‘carry her bar about with her’. The relationship between fashion and ‘perfume tippling’ is made clear to Fretz by Kate Carter of New York, who is well acquainted with the habits of Society ladies:

‘If you are observant, you will see any lady take her little ‘nip’ any afternoon at a matinee, or concert, or lecture. She opens her reticule, or, if too up-to-date for a bag, you will notice her frequent recurrence to the great pocket of her sealskin. From this she takes what you suppose to be a sugar plum or a cough lozenge. If you look closely you will find that it is a square of white sugar … My lady is about to take a perfume ‘ball’ right here in the presence of the audience and amid the glare of the incandescent lights. Another dive into the pocket and she brings forth a handsome, finely-cut crystal smelling bottle. … [S]he drops some of its contents on that square of sugar, and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’ has popped it into her mouth, downed it like a Kentucky thoroughbred.’

Perfume could also cover up the very habit it was feeding, liberally doused over the drinker to hide the fact of their ingestion of the substance. In this way, it functioned like other cosmetics that could conceal the signs of a drinking habit. Miss Howard, in Richard Pryce’s novel An Evil Spirit (1887), is mystified by the radiant appearance of an acquaintance who she has long suspected of alcoholism:

‘But presently Miss Howard made a discovery. … [She] distinctly saw the firm tracing of crayon noir. Suspicion suggested another, and very soon Miss Howard had discovered that the soft bloom on the cheeks never varied. This then was art!’

In An Evil Spirit and other contemporary literature, the well-to-do woman who drinks confirms established stereotypes of feminine behaviour: women are skilled in the art of subterfuge and use the substances at their disposal (make-up, perfume) to mask their true nature. Several doctors noted how drinking encouraged women’s ‘natural’ proclivity to dishonesty, as they lied to those around them and tried to hide their habit from view. A large part of this was likely due to the shame that came with a drinking habit, as even medical conceptions of addictive behaviour at this time carried in them a degree of moral judgement. This shame also complicates the historical study of the cologne drinker: she is a rather elusive figure, popping up only occasionally in doctors’ anecdotes or as a sensational figure in the press, making it difficult to place her squarely in the realm of either fact or fiction.

A French Eau de Cologne bottle, 1780-1850. Image: Wellcome Images.

A French Eau de Cologne bottle, 1780-1850. Image: Wellcome Images.

The Victorian perfume tippler might seem like an amusing character (and the very word ‘tippling’ suggested a more innocuous activity than the ‘drinking bout’ typically attributed to men), but doctors writing on the topic emphasised that the practice was far from trivial. To many, the resort to substances like Eau de Cologne was a sign that a woman had a long-standing drink habit, with her quaffing of perfume proof of the desperation to obtain alcohol in any form. W.C. McIntosh, writing in 1866, listed some of the substances that were ‘gulped down’ when a person was deprived of their usual alcohol or drug of choice: ‘red lavender, lavender-water, eau de cologne, creosote, vinegar, [and] vitriol’. The late 19th century was a period when the range of potential intoxicants – socially acceptable or otherwise – was increasing. The contents of journals like the Quarterly Journal of Inebriety testify to doctors’ anxieties about dealing with these new substances – everything from cocaine to camphor, from morphine to medicated wine.

Tackling the abuse of substances like Eau de Cologne was difficult, however – one could hardly remove all potentially intoxicating products from sale. The resort to substances not designed for human consumption is a problem that doctors continue to face in the 21st century – such as the drinking of hairspray in ‘dry’ rural Alaska. Although these modern-day drinkers may look a lot different to our 19th-century perfume tipplers, a common theme that unites them is the lack of legal or socially-sanctioned access to alcohol – a situation leading to the regular consumption of potentially dangerous alternatives.


Advert for a scent bottle from Chemist and Druggist, February 1890.

Advert for a scent bottle from Chemist and Druggist, February 1890.

Would you like to hear more?

I’ll be talking about the drinking habits of 19th-century women as part of Oxford Open Doors 2015, with Melissa Dickson from the Diseases of Modern Life team also joining me to talk about metals, magnets, and hysteria. You can find us at St Anne’s College from 3.15 on Sunday 13 September – we hope to see you there!

New Directions in Drinking Studies, a conference at the University of Leicester

L0007439 Cruikshank: The drunkard's children Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Son and daughter in gin-shop. Engraving The drunkard's children George Cruikshank Published: 1848 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Last weekend the Drinking Studies Network held its second major conference, ‘New Directions in Drinking Studies’ at the University of Leicester. The Network brings together scholars from a range of fields to explore drink from perspectives ranging from the sociological to the literary. Far from being simply a euphemism for spending the weekend ‘studying’ in the pub, the weekend offered a full programme of papers that touched on everything from Welsh craft cider to champagne, middle-class domestic drinking to teen ‘pre-loading’, and Roman taverns to British village pubs.

A recurrent theme throughout the conference was how closely alcohol is tied to national identity and notions of ‘tradition’. The Welsh cider producers interviewed by Emma-Jayne Abbots all had specific ideas about what constituted an ‘authentic’ cider, and this often extended beyond simple ingredients to encompass broader working practices: the role of manual labour in the process, for example, might be looked upon very differently than the use of automated machinery. The role of technologies in drinking cultures was also evident in papers addressing earlier periods and other countries. The traditional Mexican drink of pulque (made from the agave plant), discussed by Deborah Toner, had a short shelf life so that it was easily usurped in the 20th century by tequila, replacing pulque as the ‘national drink’ of Mexico.

‘Tradition’ might be a badge of honour or distinction, then, but several papers demonstrated that some ‘traditional’ drinks have also been viewed in a more negative sense. Andrew Primmer and Daniel Plata presented a fascinating history of chicha, a Colombian drink derived from maize. In the early 20th century chicha struggled to hold its own as the German Bavaria Brewery muscled in on its territory. Newspapers and public information posters began to warn drinkers against chicha, aligning the drink with crime and ill health. One brand of beer was explicit in presenting itself to consumers as a better alternative, its name literally translating as ‘No More Chicha’.

Consumers, of course, were at the centre of much of the weekend’s discussions, and alcohol’s potential for harm was examined across various periods and countries. There were obvious historical parallels between the middle-class drinking ‘subcultures’ of today, discussed by Lyn Brierly-Jones, and my own work investigating late 19th-century concerns for the lady ‘secret drinker’, with both figures provoking lively comment in the press. Perhaps what was most striking when looking at the conference papers as a whole was that, though ideas and perceptions of alcohol are very much shaped by the social and cultural context within which drinks are (or are not) consumed, the same concerns recur repeatedly: that alcohol might be consumed secretly, disrupt working practices, or harm the national health. Such concerns are often magnified in times of stress, as Stella Moss described in her paper on women workers during WWI. Moves to restrict women from entering pubs during certain hours reflected anxieties about wartime production, but also about the absence of husbands (away at the Front) as a ‘moralising influence’.

Alcohol, then, is very much bound up with our personal identity. This might be a simple matter of the drink one chooses (the more ‘ladylike’ glass of wine during a sophisticated night out, for example, as Carol Emslie et al touched upon), but can also be extended to encompass whole nations (the appeal to patriotism in the marketing of AB-InBev’s Siberian Crown lager, discussed by Graham Roberts). It is a means of exploring those identities, but also – in its ability to transform the consumer both mentally and physically – a means of cultivating multiple identities, or even, perhaps, of ‘recovering’ an authentic self. Perhaps it is this that makes alcohol so enduringly fascinating and worrying in equal measure.

You can follow the work of the Drinking Studies Network via their website and on Twitter.