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26 Sep
Mon / 2011

Vivacity and Wit, and a Pungency of Raillery

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This is our second week hosting English Taste – the grandest eighteenth-century dinner party in Houston – and now that the rush of opening has subsided, we are ready to celebrate in the appropriate fashion. If you join us at this Thursday’s punch party, you will share in a delightful cup of history, and to that end, here is a bit more on the tale of English punch:

The popularity of alcoholic punch in eighteenth-century England (and at holiday parties everywhere today) is the result of trade that developed between Europe and the Far East in the late 1600s. In this period, punch was made from a mixture of spirits, citrus, sugar, spices and water – only the last of which is actually indigenous to England. Like most new items arriving on these ships, ingredients were exotic, expensive, and became instantly fashionable among aristocratic classes who could afford them. The name for the new beverage was derived from the Persian word panj, or Hindu panch, which means “five” in reference to those five ingredients. It is unclear whether the drink was developed by Europeans while living abroad in the East, or whether it was a native drink brought back to England, but it was promptly taken up as a popular social drink by the 1680s once stable trading patterns had been established.

Recipes for punch varied widely, but in its early iterations, the alcoholic ingredient was Arrack, a distilled alcohol made from the sap of coconut flowers in South East Asia. Later in the eighteenth century, brandy or sweet wine was used. Rum became popular as result of colonial sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean, and could be used with malt spirits as an alternative. “Milk punch” briefly became vogue in the early eighteenth century, with milk replacing wine, and mixed with brandy. However it was prepared, serving punch in this period demonstrated the largesse of the host (and the toils of his serving staff). Preparing the mixture included taking off the rind of the fruit, squeezing out the juice, mixing the sugar and spices, sieving the mixture several times over until the liquid was clear before adding the spirits. There were no pre-made cocktail mixes in the eighteenth century. 

Punch was enjoyed in a variety of venues, which makes it somewhat hard to categorize as a social drink. From the time it was introduced, however, it was considered a drink to share – almost always served in drinking parties of several people, and most often amongst groups of men (see my previous post on a punch pot in Rienzi’s collection for more discussion on punch and gender). Alcoholic punch would have been served at inns and taverns, although a number of actual “punch houses” existed which would have also served food – these last were associated with copious amounts of alcohol. Such venues were the types of places where men might hold Masonic meetings, or other gatherings for political or intellectual discussion (at least for the beginning of the evening). There was, in the eighteenth century, a considerable increase in the formation of clubs and societies amongst men in industry, the sciences, or politics, established to support various civic or philanthropic purposes, or in response to political events. Whatever the purpose might have been, the punch bowl was the focal point the gatherings. Participants would sit at the table around it and promote their unity for the cause through the drinking of toasts.  And the presence of an open, shared bowl encouraged the participants to “drink the bowl dry” as it were.  Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century English author and moralist, wrote on drinking punch:

“[I have] discovered the qualities requisite to conversation are exactly represented in a bowl of Punch. Vivacity and wit, a pungency of raillery, luscious adulation and gentle compliance, easy prattle; innocent and tasteless.” 

A print from an etching by William Hogarth, made in 1730 depicts a satire of one such “polite” social gathering around a punch bowl, and demonstrates how these meetings often devolved into total chaos.  A clock in the background points to 4:00 in the morning, and a row of empty liquor bottles lines the mantel. This image must have resonated with contemporary audiences, as it was widely reproduced, and by the late 1740s actually appeared as decoration on the interior of punch bowls.  Another traditional venue for punch was in celebration following a hunt.  Many bowls are decorated with elaborate hunting scenes, another gentlemen’s pursuit.  It was also served to riders while mounted on horseback, in individual “stirrup cups” often in the shape of a dog or rabbit head. 

Come celebrate the history of this drink, with a little “vivacity and wit” on Thursday evening at Rienzi where we hope to share in the tradition of toasting!


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About Caroline Cole

Caroline Cole

Caroline Cole joined Rienzi as curatorial assistant in 2010, after completing her M.A. in the history of decorative arts and design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Parsons School for Design in New York City, and a B.A. from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

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