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Whether used to cure a particular ailment or simply taken as a general pick-me-up, mind-altering substances were common in the 1700s. Alcohol and opium were especially popular during this time, and both substances garnered their share of controversy. Opium exported to China by Great Britain’s East India Company quickly became an epidemic, leading the Qing Dynasty to outlaw the smoking of opium as well as the trade and cultivation of poppies in 1799.

As for alcohol, it was a part of daily life in both England and the American colonies. For a time, beer was deemed safer to drink than water, and many colonists imbibed at every meal, as well as in the evenings. Despite its prominence, however, alcohol was not considered dangerous, and there are few reports of blatant intoxication in 18th century America.


It was a different story in England, as the 1700s saw the rise of gin, and numerous horror stories of public gin overindulgence during this time have been reported. Fortunately, unlike today, gin and other substances didn’t typically impact travel or the safety of roadways. Horses and buggies were part of upper-class life, and as gin drinking was more widespread among the poor, intoxicated drivers were a rarity.

The Rise of “Madam Geneva”

Prior to the 18th century, beer was the intoxicating beverage of choice in both England and the colonies. Distilled spirits were a rare commodity, enjoyed only by the rich until about 1700. The turn of the 18th century saw many poor individuals from rural England flocking to London, which had a population of around 600,000 at the time.


Unfortunately, work was scarce in early 18th-century London, so a large number of the rural poor ended up on the streets. There, they found solace in gin, also known as “Madam Geneva.” The poor would often sell the clothes off their back to support their gin habit, and some would even commit crimes.


Gin changed the landscape of 18th century England in a number of ways. Public intoxication became more rampant, and women began drinking heavily for the first time. Prior to the gin craze, beer was the English drink of choice, and alehouses typically only attracted male clientele. But the social rules of alehouses didn’t apply to gin consumption, and the drink was enjoyed by men and women in equal measure.

Intoxication’s Role in Roadway Accidents

It’s difficult to fathom in our modern, bustling society, but travel outside of one’s hometown was uncommon during the 18th century. For that reason, roads weren’t regularly maintained, and those that were often required a toll from those wishing to traverse it. In 1706, private companies called “turnpike trusts” were established, which collected tolls and maintained roads.


While toll roads exist today, most roads are free, public facilities and upkeep is maintained by city and state governments. These localized entities are also responsible for keeping roads safe by enforcing speed limits and keeping inebriated drivers off the road.


In recent years, there has been an increase in drugged driving accidents, especially in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. In 2015, 21% of the more than 31,000 fatal crashes reported in the U.S. involved a driver who tested positive for drugs.


In California and many other states, law enforcement officials use blood and field sobriety tests to determine if a driver is under the influence of alcohol or cannabis. Within the Bay Area of California in 2018, seven traffic accidents with injuries resulted in a cannabis DUI arrest between January and April alone.


Comparable numbers from the 1700s are unavailable, as intoxication tests didn’t exist in the 18th century. Further, while hemp cultivation was a popular practice, marijuana use was rare during this time.

The Threat of Addiction in the 1700s

While opium and alcohol use was widespread in the 18th century, regular users were not considered addicts. In fact, alcoholism was first declared a disease that required treatment by Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1784. His work spawned America’s temperance movement, a social movement that promoted abstinence from alcohol and exposed the negative effects of it.


Addiction wasn’t even recognized as a medical condition until the following century, and overly intoxicated individuals in the 1700s were simply put in jail, an asylum, or even left on the streets. Today, we better understand the why people develop addictions, as well as their symptoms, including behavioral and personality changes, weight loss or gain, and an increased desire for privacy. These signs may have been less noticeable in the 18th century, especially among the homeless and those living in abject poverty.


Public intoxication was commonplace in the 1700s, but the threat of driving while under the influence was fortunately negligible. Not only did automobiles not even come out until the late 19th century, but even traveling by coach was largely exclusive to the upper and middle classes — the poor typically walked where they needed to go. And the poor, especially in England, were the most susceptible to the situation that today we refer to as addiction.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.