Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Word of the Week GIN

GIN: a) A spirit flavoured with juniper berries

b) A machine for separating seeds from raw cotton

As a Gin and Tonic kind of girl I figured that Gin, the drink, would feature somewhere in literature. Surprisingly it features rarely, the most famous and extensive piece being Charles Dickens' 'Gin Shops' in'Sketches by Boz' published in 1836.

Gin had been thought to have medicinal qualities and became popular in England when unlicensed gin production was allowed by the government who at the same time imposed heavy tariffs on imported spirits. By the 1730's of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London over half were gin shops!

The government became alarmed when it emerged that the average Londoner drank 14 gallons of spirit a year. People would do anything to get gin…a cattle drover sold his eleven-year-old daughter to a trader for a gallon of gin, and a coachman pawned his wife for a quart bottle.

The desperation of the situation led Hogarth to produce two prints 'Beer Street' and 'Gin Lane' (above) in 1751. The print shows the horror and squalor of the times with a woman taking snuff as her baby falls into a gin cellar.

Realising the seriousness of the situation the government imposed a tax on gin in 1736 which led to riots and immediately the sale of gin went underground with bootleggers, runners and pushers selling their illegal wares under such names as Cuckold's Comfort, Ladies Delight and Knock Me Down.

Gin was however the 'Opium of the people', although it led to debt, starvation and death it kept them warm in winter and allayed terrible hunger pangs. The government again raised the duty on gin and throughout the 18th Century consumption began to fall. Consumption did not however fall very rapidly and the drink remained a social problem such that in 1836 Dickens wrote about it. Like Hogarth Dickens noted that poverty was the underlying issue

'Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery, with the pittance which, divided among his family, would furnish a morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase in number and splendour.'

The Cotton Gin

The Cotton Gin was invented by Eli Whitney in about 1793. It is a machine that separates cotton seeds from cotton fibres. The effect of Whitney's invention was a massive increase and growth in the cotton industry, by the middle of the 1800's America was growing 3/4's of the worlds cotton. The increased demand for cotton led to an increase in the demand for land and slaves.

'In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.' (Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop)

As the plantations grew and spread and the price of land and slaves increased this inhibited the growth of towns and cities, which in turn exacerbated the differences between the North and South of America. The North of America at this time accounted for 72% of the country's manufacturing capacity whilst the South was an agricultural slave owning society.

In 1798 Eli Whitney figured out how to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable, it was this that finally made him rich.

Eli Whitney was not only directly responsible for making cotton King but also the expansion of the slave trade that led to the American Civil War in 1861. Not only that, he provided the means by which the North triumphed by reason of it's superior arms manufacturing capabilities.

But what has this to do with literature? Many novels have dealt with the issues of slavery and the Civil War, 'Roots' and 'Gone with the Wind' are but two examples, and also the division between North and South and issues around racism (William Faulkner springs to mind here). Not only that but the conditions Eli Whitney created with the invention of the cotton gin, arms manufacturing and the resultant conflict changed the course of history, much of modern America and therefore it's literature are as they are because of the results of Eli Whitney's inventions.

Whew! I'm off for a Gin and Tonic.


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