Punch: The 18th Century’s ‘Middling’ Drink

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Hogarth’s view of a punch party in 1733
(CC) Welcome Collection

Different choices of alcoholic drink have long been associated with wealth and class, from the finest and most expensive imported wines to the roughest ciders. Georgian times were no different. When gin, brought from Holland by the soldiers of William of Orange, became popular amongst the poor, it did so mostly because it was cheap, especially compared with brandy, which had to be imported. Beer was available freely, but was considered an everyday drink, not suitable for entertaining — and meeting in social venues fast became an essential part of life for the Georgian ‘Middling Sort’. Clubs and societies of all kinds sprouted up everywhere, driven in part by increasing wealth and in part by an increase in available leisure time. The wealthy had long devoted themselves to various ways of socialising with their peers; now the middling sort wanted to do the same — but less expensively.

The Origins of Punch

Punch was an exotic drink — at least at the start — but one that was easy to make and not too expensive. The word itself is of Hindi origin, revealing its links to the exciting world of the Far East, and comes from the word for ‘five’: the original number of ingredients. The basics were a spirit (usually rum or brandy) to provide alcoholic content, various fruits and spices, sugar and something to bulk it out, perhaps cheap wine or fruit juice or even tea.

When the rich drank punch, they naturally used only the most expensive ingredients:

The Regent’s (George IV) Punch

“Pare as thin as possible the rinds of two china oranges, of two lemons, and ove one seville orange, and infuse them for an hour in half a pint of thin, cold syrup; then add to them the juice of the fruit. Make a pint of strong green tea, sweeten it well with fine sugar, and when it is quite cold, add to it the fruit and syrup, with a glass of the best old Jamaica rum, a glass of Brandy, one of Arrack, one of pine-apple syrup, and two bottles of Champagne. Pass the whole through a fine lawn sieve until it is perfectly clear, then bottle and put it into ice until dinner is served. We are indebted for this receipt to a person who made the punch daily for the prince’s table, at Carlton palace, for six months; it has been in our possession for some years and may be relied on.”

Modern Cookery for Private Families, Eliza Acton (1849)

Punch Parties

Just as coffeehouses provided a meeting place for middle-class men, so a few punch taverns or punch houses sprang up in major cities. However, they seem not to have caught on, perhaps because punch is easily prepared at home. Instead, as groups of middle-class ladies began to meet over tea for social purposes, so men started to hold punch parties for similar reasons. Tea was thought of as a polite drink, but perhaps not quite ‘masculine’ enough for the kind of male get-together at which tongues would be loosened and inhibitions set aside. Alcoholic punch served the purpose better and became something of an English male obsession during the middle and end of the eighteenth century. It sat in the middle between the cheapest alcoholic drinks — and the low-class taverns and grog-houses where they would be served — and the expensive wine, port and brandy that marked out the tables of the gentry and peerage. A half-crown bowl of punch (two shillings and sixpence) would serve about eight people, making each serving cost around 3.5 pence (about the same as a cup of Starbuck’s latte today) — compared to beer at a penny per pint.

It also became seen as a quintessentially English drink; a misapprehension that Addison made fun of in the Free-Holder of 5th March, 1716. He reports talking with a boorish country squire, who denigrates everything foreign or associated with overseas trade. They end up sharing a bowl of punch, at which Addison points out the other man’s foolish bigotry thus:

I took this occasion to insinuate the advantage him, that water was the only native of England this occasion: but that the lemons, the brandy , the sugar, and the nutmeg lemons, were all foreigners. This put him into some confusion.

The new socio-political clubs and dinners that arose during the latter part of the eighteenth century, especially during the Napoleonic wars, often used the serving of good punch to mark their ‘elite’ status as important citizens, even if they were not members of the gentry. It was all part of the gradual rise of the middle class into greater prominence and growing political ‘clout’. While these meetings could get rowdy, most were fairly serious affairs for the discussion of economic and political issues important in an age of growing commercialism.

Serving Punch

In line with its modest level of refinement, the bowls for serving punch were generally made of decorated china and earthenware. Lower quality ones certainly existed, as did some made of glass and silver for the gentry, but most were typical middle-class possessions. A ‘China Punch-bowl’, allegedly stolen from the house of one William Lawrence in 1737, was said to be worth worth 5s (£40 – 50 in today’s money). Many are mentioned in the inventories associated with wills at almost all levels of Georgian society, proving how widespread the drinking of punch had become.

To make ye best punch

“Put 1½ a pound of suger in a quart of water, stir it well yn put in a pint of Brandy, a quarter of a pint of Lime Juice, & a nutmeg grated, yn put in yr tosts or Biskets well toasted.”

Katherine Windham’s Boke of Housekeeping, 1707

By the mid-century, some punch pots looked very like large teapots, their different use mostly proved by lettering or pictures on them referring to punch. Why were they used? Perhaps to make an overt link between tea (a polite drink for ladies) and punch as a polite drink for gentlemen. Maybe it also helped the host to control the amount taken by anyone. An open bowl was an invitation to dip in; a lidded pot required someone in charge of pouring the drink out. Perhaps its use also made punch drinking more acceptable in mixed company, since we know both genders drank punch, at least in domestic settings.

It would be easy to extend this post further, but I think this is enough for the moment. I find it odd that research into this fascinating topic is rather limited — a chance for an aspiring Ph.D. student, perhaps?

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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One Response to Punch: The 18th Century’s ‘Middling’ Drink

  1. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    It is strange that punch was seen as a quintessentially English drink, and that people disliked anything deriving from overseas trade. Not only did the ingredients sound foreign and tropical (Jamaican rum, pineapple, sugar, oranges and lemons, tea etc), but the Trading Companies were the pride of the newly successful economy!

    I am from the Middling Sort and would have loved to socialise in the new punch houses.

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