Our series on the history of absinthe continues: today we’re writing about the origins of absinthe, and its ups and downs in history. This week’s chapter takes you right back to the Belle Epoque, and will show you how absinthe became so popular. Artists apparently felt inspired by the green Fairy, but were they genuinely inspired, or did this inspiration actually result from absinthe’s overall popularity during that period? Read, and decide for yourself.
Absinthe, a thriving business
The rapidly increasing popularity of absinthe led to the founding of distilleries in every region of France: 65 in and around Paris, 52 in Bordeaux, 45 in Marseille, 25 in Pontarlier, 18 in Lyon and 12 in Dijon. Wormwood was key – everything evolved around its cultivation, distillation, and trade.
Nearly every town had its own distillery, and the staggering number of brands, absinthes, and recipes made it difficult for consumers to choose between them. Taking advantage of this flourishing business, a large number of representatives and sales people travelled all over the country to sell their brand to the cafes and restaurants. In 1874, the average consumption of absinthe was 700,000 litres per year. 36 years later, in 1910, this number had risen to an incredible 36,000,000 litres. Clearly, back then, working in the absinthe industry was a very promising prospect!
Absinthe – a high profile spirit
Apart from distilleries, this thriving business delivered just as much potential for the advertising market. Especially the poster designers must have benefited the most – they used two very desirable marketing strategies: On one hand, they promoted the feeling of wealth and living a luxury life, and on the other hand, they connected absinthe with feminine eroticism, to appeal to the predominantly male target audience. Along with posters; postcards, newspaper adverts, and precisely designed bottle labels were commonly used to market the green fairy.
The marketers and advertising representatives flooded the consumers with marketing material
From 1900 onwards, manufacturers and their marketers started including slogans stressing the supposed medical benefits of absinthe. Posters and cardboard displays were shouting “It’s good for your health!” and reached a large number of people, especially members of the artist community.
Friend and muse of the artists
Verlaine, Rimbaud, two names that are strongly associated with absinthe… However, it seems that the green muse haunted nearly all artists, writers and dramatists during the Belle Epoque. Writers, painters and actors all felt tremendously inspired by the green fairy. Whether she actually fired the artists’ imagination or not, one cannot be certain. However, the fact that absinthe and its ritual were so popular across all social classes, was certainly another reason why it was found in so many paintings, scripts and poems.
Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Picasso, Hemingway, and many others, felt inspired by absinthe, and honoured it within their art work. The green fairy was always considered to have a soft, caring character, this is why she was always illustrated as a woman.
Paris, spring 1914. Painted bronze with perforated silver-plated
Oil on canvas, measuring 55cm x 46cm, by Georges Goursat dit Sem. A pipe smoking General
Boulanger is shown sitting on a matchstriker, wearing a striped swimming costume (possibly a
reference to him having fled across the Channel to England) and bathing his feet in a glass of
Pernod (perhaps a sign of homesickness for France?).
Absinthe and feminism
The women from the Belle Epoque didn’t want to be limited to the small range of “liqueurs made for ladies”. Female students and workers from local breweries used to meet after work, and enjoy a couple of glasses of absinthe in a warm, relaxed atmosphere, which was a sign of very early emancipation, as stated by Henri Balesta in 1860:
“In the Latin Quarter, these ladies don’t fear drinking alcohol at all, they are far away from fear, and drink everything they can. Once you walk over the bridge to the Boulevard, you’ll find the nicely spaced out tables full of absintheuses and absintheurs, and I guarantee you, that the absintheuses are at least as experienced and passionate about absinthe, as the absintheurs.”
The cafes and restaurants along the boulevards experienced a change of the atmosphere: the gentlemen in waistcoat and hat were joined by beautiful women with nicely sewn dresses.
Women used to enjoy absinthe just as much as men.
I hope you enjoyed the third chapter of the Absinthe History – if you would like to catch up on the first and second chapter, you will find them via the links. where you will be able to catch up on the previous chapters of my script. The fourth chapter will be sent out to you in two weeks – focussing on the beginnings of the anti-absinthe movements in France.
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