Writers and artists in the 19th century were fascinated by gin palaces – and especially by their bold, gaudy architectural and decorative features.
The image above is from the Wellcome Collection and contrasts an old-fashioned tavern of the 16th century with a gin palace of the 1840s.
Trying to read the messages it is sending about the dangers of the gin palace, we think we can see:
- tottering drunks
- a transaction underway in the alleyway
- a thin man emerging into the cold
- a pawnbroker right next door
In other words, this gin palace might look grand, but it’s part of the industry of poverty.
The gin palace is also called The Upas Tree – the poisonous plant from which strychnine is produced.
In context, the criticism is even clearer. For our version above, we’ve cropped the picture; this character appears next to it in the original.
The building, though, does look astonishing. Improbably, even. How would that huge keyhole window in the centre work in practice? No, we think this is a fantasy.
It does pick up on the truth about gin palaces, though, which is that they often made enormous lamps or other sculptural features a key part of their marketing. This is from The Globe from 14 October 1837:
At a gin palace lately established in Shoreditch, the proprietor, in order to eclipse his other neighbours, has got a clock of large dimensions and splendid workmanship at the extremity of the saloon, and so constructed, that, when occasion requires, it will perform no less than sixteen tunes, and play, without intermission, for one hour, the following amongst other tunes and waltzes: Jim Crow, accompanied (of course) by some of the old women present); All ’round my Hat, The Light of Other Days, Farewell to the Mountain, Jenny Jones, &c. None but an eye-witness can imagine the effect of the music on the motely [sic] group assembled in this gin palace.
We dipped into the world of gin palaces in a series of posts last year…
- The gin palace vs. the pub | Dec 2019
- A Frenchman visits a gin palace, 1873 | Jan 2020
- The temptation of the gin palace door | Mar 2020
- Gin palaces in Manchester | March 2020
…and there may be a few more coming in the next week or two.
In the meantime, you might also want to check out a blog that’s new to us, A Drinkers’s History of London, the anonymous author of which has also touched on gin palaces.