Absinthe and the Working Class

Absinthe’s growing popularity with the working class (not just with bohemian artists like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers like Rimbaud and Verlaine) began to cause increasing alarm amongst politicians, clergy and the ruling intelligentsia. The perception was that absinthe destroyed the structure of traditional family life by undermining the health and insidiously corrupting the morals of the family breadwinner. It’s irresistible allure led to drunkenness, unemployment, crime and ultimately insanity and death. The themes of alcoholism and madness pervade temperance posters, books and other materials depicting working class families.

Anti-absinthe card contrasting two very different families.

L’Epatant 1909.

Undated photograph of a working man posing with an absinthe bottle and glass, his wife and child in the background.

A cardboard advertising sign for La Poudre Montavon, an anti-drunkenness powder marketed to wives distressed about their husband’s drinking.

Histoire d’une Bouteille

Probably the most influential French prohibitionist tract was J. Baudrillard’s Histoire d’une Bouteille, a series of illustrated lectures on the dangers of absinthe and alcohol. Widely distributed in schools and workers’ unions by the Ligue Nationale, it combines a highly selective reading of, the then, current scientific research into the effects of alcohol, with the story of Jean-Louis, a young working man, whose life is ruined – and eventually ended – by alcoholism. Published at the turn of the century, the book went through many editions, and was also circulated at temperance meetings in the form of illustrated cards – see the full series on the following pages.

The book itself portrays Jean-Louis’ descent into alcoholism in a series of pen and ink sketches – these were worked up into full colour versions for the illustrated card series. His path to ruin starts when, encouraged by his friends, he begins drinking absinthe.

Original advertisement for the book by J. Baudrillard at 1fr 25, and the associated cards La Famille et l’Alcool designed by Jean Geoffrey at 2 fr 50 per pack of 12. The images were also available, as part of Libraire Delagrave’s Enseignement Anti alcoolique, in the form of cartons and pamphlets, and as glass projector slides.

Below is another card series showing how the drinking of absinthe leads to alcoholism, the destruction of family life, delirium tremens and eventually death!