The War on Absinthe

~ The Absinthe Encyclopedia - CHAPTER VII ~

From 1875, The fight against absinthe started to become much more organised. Puritans, temperance foundations, politicians and competing alcohol producers found themselves together and built an alliance to fit against absinthe. Because just as popular the green fairy had become, she was probably hated just as much by their opponents. Absinthe became the synonym for alcoholism, violence, murder, and was claimed to introduce the end of the functioning society.
As a result of these negative proclamations, a war was started against this drink. In particular, the wine producers supported any actions ruining the green fairy’s reputation, and cheered the most, when the French government finally declared the ban of absinthe in 1914.

Absinthe et Absintheurs by Henri Balesta

Absinthe et Absintheurs by Henri Balesta

Written by a young journalist and playwright named Henri Balesta, it documented the social effects of the nascent absinthe craze. The booklet is divided into seven chapters each discussing a particular aspect of absinthe drinking in Paris, with the final chapter being a heartfelt anti-absinthe appeal. The year Absinthe et Absintheurs was written was a particularly important time in terms of the burgeoning understanding of drug use. In Britain for example, the Food and Drugs act had just been published. This specifically prohibited the adulteration of foodstuffs – something which was becoming an increasing problem, not least in the manufacture of absinthe. In the same year the naturalist Mordecai Cooke published his ground-breaking work The Seven Sisters of Sleep, a work which looked at historical drug use throughout the world. He documented the usage of the seven most popular plants of the Victorian era: tobacco, opium, cannabis, betel nut,...

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Absinthe and the Working Class

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. 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...

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Social Commentary

Social Commentary

As absinthe drinking spread amongst the working classes in the 1890’s, the social ills arising from its abuse attracted increasing attention from the satirical illustrators of the day. Particular attention was paid to the abuse of children by alcoholic parents, and to the increasing numbers of woman who enjoyed the...

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Magnan, Science and Pseudoscience

Magnan, Science and Pseudoscience

Absinthe was originally fairly expensive, and largely a drink of the upper-middle classes. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century it had fallen dramatically in price, both because of increasing economies of scale in its production, and because most producers had switched from grape alcohol to far cheaper grain and beet alcohols. At the same time the number of brands exploded, with many catering for the very cheapest end of the market. Absinthe became increasingly popular amongst all classes of French society, and began to displace wine as the standard drink of the French working class. During this period the French wine industry was struggling with the crippling effects of both oidium (a kind of mildew) and phylloxera (an incurable aphid infestation deadly to vines). Almost all the French national vineyard had to be replanted, a process that took decades and resulted in a prolonged shortage of...

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Anti-Absinthe Propaganda in Schools

Anti-Absinthe Propaganda in Schools

For this topic, we will let the images do the talk. Below is an extraordinary large double sided anti-alcohol poster (measuring 118cm x 97cm), illustrating graphically the alleged dangers of industrial alcohol and absinthe, and praising the healthy effects of wine, cider and beer. Designed for display in schools, it clearly shows the influence of the wine lobby as the force behind the French temperance movement, because the use of wine is not only not condemned, it’s almost actively encouraged. Particularly noteworthy are the two contrasting guinea pig experiments: in the one the animal is fed industrial alcohol and has the usual epileptic fit and then dies a horrible death; in the other the guinea pig is fed wine and has nothing worse than a pleasant sleep, before waking up with presumably only a mild hangover… Absinthe is singled out for special opprobrium on the reverse side: L’Absinthe est...

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Anti-Absinthe Caricatures

Anti-Absinthe Caricatures

Original pen and watercolour sketches by graphic artists for anti-absinthe...

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J’Accuse – Dreyfus, Zola

J’Accuse – Dreyfus, Zola

In 1907 Henri Robert a leading French criminal barrister said: “Alcoholism is the chief cause of the increase in criminality. Absinthe is the enemy”. As a scapegoat, absinthe was a perfect choice to the extent it was even drawn into the anti-Semitism debate of the time – many of the larger absinthe producers (including most importantly the Veil-Picard family that owned Pernod Fils) were Jewish, or of Jewish origin. The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal which divided France for many years . Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army was, in fact, innocent: his conviction rested on false documents, and when high-ranking officers realised this they attempted to cover up the mistakes. The writer Emile Zola exposed the affair to the general public in the literary newspaper L’Aurore (The Dawn) in a famous open letter to the Président de la République Félix Faure, titled J’accuse! (I...

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Les périls

Les périls

A set of 6 postcards showing six grave dangers facing France: contaminated milk, excessive bureaucracy, the rise of China, corrupt priests, revolutionary socialism, and ABSINTHE! The artist T. Bianco, was one of the leading satirical illustrators of the...

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The Popular Press

The Popular Press

The press largely supported the anti-absinthe movement, as shown on these papers...

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Propaganda Pamphlets

Propaganda Pamphlets

The literature against absinthe have been abundant. Here are below the covers of some of these essays / propaganda pamphlets against...

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Absinthe in the Silent Film Era

Absinthe in the Silent Film Era

Almost from the very outset, motion picture producers found a lucrative niche producing films with an anti-alcohol message. As the much demonized focus of the French temperance movement, absinthe was soon given a starring role as villain-in-chief. La Bonne Absinthe – 1899 In 1899 Alice Guy directed the short film La Bonne Absinthe. A crude piece just a minute long, this is nonetheless the earliest known reference to absinthe in film, Long thought lost, this tiny flickering fragment from the dawn of film history – just 56 seconds long – is the earliest filmed version of an absinthe being prepared and drunk. It tells a short, comical story: a man walks into a café, orders an absinthe, the waiter brings a bottle and adds a large dose to his glass, the man adds water from a carafe in an absent minded way while reading his newspaper, not realising that...

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Fraternal Attacks

Fraternal Attacks

From the 1870’s onwards, the temperance campaign against absinthe intensified. Rival manufacturers of other drinks – quinquinas, fortified wines, herbal tonics – rather than standing by the beleaguered absinthe manufacturers in a spirit of fraternal solidarity, sought to capitalize on the campaign to demonize La Fée Verte, usually by contrasting the alleged health giving virtues of their products with the claimed deleterious effects of absinthe. In some cases, apéritifs were specifically created to attack the absinthe market – an example is shown below: Eucalypsinthe was an absinthe-like drink with the wormwood replaced rather bizarrely with eucalyptus leaves. A promotional leaflet for the absinthe-substitute Eucalypsinthe, printed for the Universal Exhibition in 1878, where the product was displayed in the Tasting Pavilion. In a classic example of the pseudo-scientific style popular with late 19th century advertisers, the text on the reverse expounds at tremendous length on the alleged marvellous health-giving properties...

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The Absinthe Producers Fight Back

The Absinthe Producers Fight Back

The absinthe producers had hard time in this fight, and finaly lost the war. But they were trying to defend their economic interests naturally, and wrote texts with solid arguments to fight back the anti-absinthe...

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Guguss and the Vaud Referendum

Guguss and the Vaud Referendum

Guguss was produced and edited by the remarkable Genevois, Louis Bron, a larger than life (literally – he weighed nearly 150kg) bon vivant, satirist, politician and publisher. This ground-breaking satirical journal was first published in Geneva in 1894, featuring a tight integration of handwritten text and hard-hitting caricatures by Albert Gantner (under the name Polyte). Guguss exposed cant and hypocrisy wherever Bron found it and attracted a devoted readership of over 25000, who eagerly awaited the new edition distributed at bars and cafés every Saturday. A passionate devotee of La Feé Verte, Bron ensured that Guguss was at the forefront of the fight to save absinthe from prohibition, and in the years from 1905 many articles and sometimes entire issues of the magazine were devoted to attacking the prohibitionist movement, and to campaigning in favour of absinthe, invariably nicknamed coueste by Bron. Printed in Saint Gervais, where Bron was...

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The Lanfray Murders

The Lanfray Murders

As we have seen, in the years after 1900 the pressure to ban absinthe was steadily mounting. The last straw was a series of particularly brutal family murders which were – largely unfairly – blamed on absinthe consumption. The most notorious of these was the widely publicised Lanfray case, which riveted the European press in 1905. Maurice Zolotow, in a 1971 Playboy Magazine article, takes up the story: “On August 28 1905, Jean Lanfray, a vineyard worker and day labourer in the little village of Commugny, Switzerland, awoke at 4.30 in the morning. He began his day with his usual eye opener: a shot of absinthe, to which he added three parts of water. Before the day was over, Lanfray would commit a series of horrible murders and, ultimately, he would bring about the downfall of a $100,000,000 industry. Lanfray was a tough, burly peasant. He weighed 180 pounds....

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Prohibition in Switzerland

Prohibition in Switzerland

Primarily as a result of popular outrage generated by the Lanfray murders, the legislature of the canton of Vaud voted to ban absinthe on 15th May 1906. A similar gory murder in Geneva (a man named Sallaz, after a drunken absinthe binge, murdered his wife using both a hatchet and a revolver) galvanized public opinion there in favour of a ban, and the Genevan legislature enacted a law similar to Vaud’s shortly afterwards. On 2nd February 1907 the national legislature voted to ban absinthe, and even its imitators. The July 1908 referendum was held to ratify this decision and enshrine the ban in the Swiss constitution. The eventual vote in this referendum was 241 078 to 139 699 in favour of the ban. Article 32 was added to the Swiss constitution and absinthe was forbidden in Switzerland. The law actually went into effect on 7th October 1910. A German...

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August 1914 – Prohibition in France

August 1914 – Prohibition in France

Because of its high alcoholic strength, and the constant campaigning of the prohibitionist movement, the production and sale of absinthe became increasingly heavily taxed and tightly regulated from the early 1900’s. Specific laws concerning absinthe were posted in bars and bistrots. Anti-absinthe petition circulated by the Ligue Nationale Contre L’Alcoolisme, advocating a ban on the sale of absinthe in France. “Attendu que l’absinthe rend fou et criminel, qu’elle provoque l’épilepsie et-la tuberculose, et qu’elle tue chaque année des milliers de Français, Attendu qu’elle fait de l’homme une bête féroce, de la femme une martyre, de l’enfant un dégénéré, qu’elle désorganise et ruine la famille et menace ainsi l’avenir du pays, Attendu que des mesures de défense spéciales s’imposent impérieusement à la France, qui boit à elle seule plus d’absinthe que le reste du monde, Invitent le Parlement à vote’ la proposition de loi suivante: “La fabrication, la circulation et...

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The Aftermath of Prohibition

The Aftermath of Prohibition

The period immediately after the ban were characterised by the beginnings of clandestine distillation (and increasing nostalgia for the Green Fairy), while the authorities sought to strengthen the ban by prohibiting not just absinthe, but all similar and related alcoholic products as well. Absinthe and Gunpowder Several different schemes were put in place to compensate the absinthe distilleries both for the revenues lost due to the ban, and for their existing stocks of absinthe. One of the most interesting was the purchase, re-distillation and re-use of absinthe to make the gunpowder for shells. A letter dated February 1916 sent by the Magnou Distillery to erstwhile absinthe producers, informing them that they could sell their reserves of now illegal absinthe to the distillery, which was authorized to pay them a fair price for a product they could no longer sell directly. The letter goes on to explain that the distillery...

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