History’s First Photo Of People Drinking Beer

Twitter lit up last night with tweets of an old photograph taken in 1844. It was Boak & Bailey who I saw tweet it, so h/t to them, although it appears to have been bouncing around the interwebs since at least July of 2012. Although neither the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one of the originals is located, the National Portrait Gallery, where there’s another, or on Wikipedia, confirms or denies it, many sources posting it have indicated that it’s the first photograph taken depicting people drinking beer, in this case Edinburgh Ale. According to the museum, the photographers were David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The people in the photo are identified as James Ballantine, Dr. George Bell, and D.O. Hill. It was printed on salted paper from a paper negative. I like the idea that it is the first photographic record of people enjoying a beer, but I’d prefer to see more proof. It seems likely, of course, since according to one account it was taken just six years after the very first photograph of a human. But I suppose until someone shows me one that’s earlier, I’m going to take their word for it.

This is the photograph from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


Whereas the photo that’s at the National Portrait Gallery is more grey than brown, and is identified as an Calotype print.


It also includes the following caption.

The skills involved in producing calotypes were not only of a technical nature. Hill’s sociability, humour and his capacity to gauge the sitters’ characters all played a crucial part in his photography. He is shown here on the right, apparently sharing a drink and a joke with James Ballantine and Dr George Bell. Bell, in the middle, was one of the commissioners of the Poor Law of 1845, which reformed poor relief in Scotland. Ballantine was a writer and stained-glass artist, and the son of an Edinburgh brewer. On the table are three glasses of ale. According to a contemporary account, Edinburgh ale was “a potent fluid, which almost glued the lips of the drinker together”.

“Glued the lips of the drinker together,” that’s one of the oddest descriptions of how a beer tastes I’ve ever read. It makes me want to try an Edinburgh Ale. I’ve get to working on that time machine.


  1. Gary Gillman says

    It’s a good picture. The small flute-like glasses were due to the high strength of Edinburgh Ale, especially in this period when IPA/Pale Ale (from England) hadn’t rivalled the old Scotch Ale as yet. The beer looks not dark but a medium or darkish gold, as per historical records. The glue-like effect was due to the high malt content and low attenuation of these beers. On Ron Pattinson’s site, I am sure you will find recipes for these beers. He uses the term “shilling beers” to differentiate them from a line of beers which submitted more to English influence as the century wore on. Lord Traquair Ale is, IMO, a descendant of this Scotch Ale, as indeed MacEwan’s Scotch Ale is which many old hands will remember. The Belgians too have many examples of this old style of ale. It may well be that numerous barley wines right in your own neighbourhood offer a similar palate, as long as they don’t overdo the West Coast hops. :)


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