A Historical Look At English Drinking Habits

This is an interesting report from the British Parliament, specifically from the Health Committee. It’s a memorandum by Dr. Phil Withington and Dr. Angela McShane entitled Fluctuations in English Drinking Habits: An Historical Overview.

The overview includes a chronology beginning around 1550 and discusses increases and decreases in alcohol consumption in five periods since then, which they summarize as follows below.

In terms of consumption (inevitably crudely measured at times) it can be seen that England experienced a significant rise and consolidation of drinking levels during the “early modern period” (1550-1750). Between 1550 and 1650 there was a commercialisation of “old world” production and distribution plus the introduction of tobacco. The 100 years after 1650 were in turn characterised by the assimilation of, and moral panics about, new commodities, in particular coffee and gin. In the following two hundred years, which coincided with industrialisation and massive increase in population, there was a marked decline in the consumption of alcohol. The post-industrial or post-modern era (post-1960) seems to have returned to the kind of trends in the early modern period: increased consumption—especially conspicuous and public consumption among certain sections of the population—facilitated by powerful business organisations that are extremely competent at managing their relationship with political authority.

The dense information about continuities, discontinuities and gender is fascinating reading, but takes time to digest. It’s still marinating in my brain. I’m especially intrigued by this statement. “The medical industry now has the technology, knowledge, and incentives (especially commercial) to identify and treat many of the biological consequences of alcoholic consumption. This is in definite contrast to previous centuries, when medicine was more likely to use alcohol as a treatment rather than cure its related maladies, and when the primary impact of medical practitioners was, it seems, to create, legitimise and/or popularise new kinds of intoxicants.” The memorandum also notes that “[i]ncreased female consumption of alcohol may go some way to explaining the increases in general consumption since the 1960s since half the population was tacitly barred from drinking before then.” So that would suggest that per capita consumption is actually falling if one of the primary reasons for an increase is essentially a twofold increase in the number of people consuming alcohol.


As prohibitionists incessantly nip at the heels of drinkers, doing everything they can to curb consumption, I think it’s constructive look at the bigger picture. Patterns of consumption tend to ebb and flow, and are affected by a variety of factors: economic, social, legal, and others. So whenever some prohibitionist group claims their new law, or awareness campaign, or what have you, has caused consumption to go down — or more often claims whatever they’re proposing is necessary precisely to decrease peoples’ drinking — it’s important to remember that people have always enjoyed alcohol, and will continue to do so, and changing the laws merely changes those patterns, it doesn’t really effect much over the long haul. I wonder if anyone has taken a similar look at historical drinking patterns in America?


  1. Beerman49 says

    Don’t know much about US alcohol consumption patterns, but post Civil War through Pearl Harbor Day, millions who rarely bought beer/wine/booze. drank “patent medicines” (most of which were 20-25%+ alcohol & legal to sell during Prohibition) regularly, many often to excess. My mom’s told me many times that her dad was a heavy user of that shit.

    Would take a good historian to assist in a definitive study of American drinking – sales #’s from the beer/wine/booze industries wouldn’t come close to the reality, given all the moonshine produced forever. From the Prohibition era, you’d have to factor in “bathtub gin”, primitive homebrew, & smuggled booze, the data for which only could be “guesstimates”.

    USA can be tracked reasonably accurately only 1933-present.

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