Sunday, July 20, 2008

Absinthe & Vintage Absinthe Posters

Absinthe is a strong alcoholic beverage (60-75% alcohol) that derives its distinctive bitter taste from wormwood (an herb), and is mixed with distilled liquor, such as brandy, and other herbs and spices. In the nineteenth century, the yellowish-green drink became popular in Europe, particularly France, and in American cities. Its hallucinogenic properties made it chic among poets, writers, and artists, prompting one scholar to label it "the cocaine of the nineteenth century." In the early-twentieth century, absinthe was widely banned because of fears that it severely impaired the physical and mental health of its users, as well as the morality and social fabric of nations.

The use of wormwood leaves combined with wine or other alcoholic beverages is ancient, with references to it appearing in the Bible, Egyptian papyri, and other old texts. Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician (582-500 B.C.) claimed it eased childbirth, while Hippocrates, the Greek "father of medicine" (460-377 B.C.), recommended it for a number of ailments, including anemia, menstrual pain, and rheumatism. In the first century A.D., the champions of Roman chariot races drank an absinthe concoction to remind them that every victory is mingled with bitterness. In fourteenth-century France it was used to facilitate human digestion, and in seventeenth-century England wormwood was spread throughout houses to repel vermin. By the next century, it was considered a medical cure-all.

The precise origin of absinthe's transformation from a medical remedy to an intoxicating beverage is uncertain. Advertisements for an absinthe liquor appear in the late-eighteenth century in Switzerland. By 1805, Henri-Louis Pernod had opened a distillery in France, and the Pernod brand thereafter became the leading label for absinthe, although many rival companies competed in the expanding and lucrative market. In the mid-1840s, French troops fighting in Algeria were given absinthe rations to prevent various fevers (a practice continued into World War I), and they returned home with the habit. In 1858, absinthe drinking was so common in France that Harper's Weekly called it "a French institution," although primarily identifying it with military men.

The practice soon spread throughout French society. In 1874, the French consumed 700,000 liters of absinthe per year, a number that reportedly rose to 36 million by 1910 (a greater amount than the rest of Europe combined). Parisians spoke of the "green hour" during which people sat in sidewalk cafes sipping absinthe. Poets like Arthur Rimbaud wrote poetry while intoxicated with the liquor, while artists Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh memorialized the rituals of absinthe drinking in several paintings. (Most drinkers used a special glass topped by a spoon from which a sugar cube in water slowly melted into the beverage.)

Absinthe appeared in New Orleans, America's "Little Paris," as early as the 1830s. The Absinthe Room in the city's French Quarter became a hotspot attracting noted celebrities, such as Americans Walt Whitman and General P. G. T. Beauregard and foreign visitors Oscar Wilde of Britain and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. Absinthe drinking became the vogue in other major American cities, New York (which had a restaurant named the Absinthe House), Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. In the United States the practice was also associated with the bohemian culture of artists and their trendy (and often wealthy) imitators.

Excerpt from a Harper's weekly article from 1883. Accompanied by vintage absinthe posters from our 'Drinks' collection.

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