Chapter 22. Gin–Shops

by Charles Dickens

It is a remarkable circumstance, that different trades appear to partake of the disease to which elephants and dogs are especially liable, and to run stark, staring, raving mad, periodically.  The great distinction between the animals and the trades, is, that the former run mad with a certain degree of propriety—they are very regular in their irregularities.  We know the period at which the emergency will arise, and provide against it accordingly.  If an elephant run mad, we are all ready for him—kill or cure—pills or bullets, calomel in conserve of roses, or lead in a musket-barrel.  If a dog happen to look unpleasantly warm in the summer months, and to trot about the shady side of the streets with a quarter of a yard of tongue hanging out of his mouth, a thick leather muzzle, which has been previously prepared in compliance with the thoughtful injunctions of the Legislature, is instantly clapped over his head, by way of making him cooler, and he either looks remarkably unhappy for the next six weeks, or becomes legally insane, and goes mad, as it were, by Act of Parliament.  But these trades are as eccentric as comets; nay, worse, for no one can calculate on the recurrence of the strange appearances which betoken the disease.  Moreover, the contagion is general, and the quickness with which it diffuses itself, almost incredible.

We will cite two or three cases in illustration of our meaning.  Six or eight years ago, the epidemic began to display itself among the linen-drapers and haberdashers.  The primary symptoms were an inordinate love of plate-glass, and a passion for gas-lights and gilding.  The disease gradually progressed, and at last attained a fearful height.  Quiet, dusty old shops in different parts of town, were pulled down; spacious premises with stuccoed fronts and gold letters, were erected instead; floors were covered with Turkey carpets; roofs supported by massive pillars; doors knocked into windows; a dozen squares of glass into one; one shopman into a dozen; and there is no knowing what would have been done, if it had not been fortunately discovered, just in time, that the Commissioners of Bankruptcy were as competent to decide such cases as the Commissioners of Lunacy, and that a little confinement and gentle examination did wonders.  The disease abated.  It died away.  A year or two of comparative tranquillity ensued.  Suddenly it burst out again amongst the chemists; the symptoms were the same, with the addition of a strong desire to stick the royal arms over the shop-door, and a great rage for mahogany, varnish, and expensive floor-cloth.  Then, the hosiers were infected, and began to pull down their shop-fronts with frantic recklessness.  The mania again died away, and the public began to congratulate themselves on its entire disappearance, when it burst forth with tenfold violence among the publicans, and keepers of ‘wine vaults.’  From that moment it has spread among them with unprecedented rapidity, exhibiting a concatenation of all the previous symptoms; onward it has rushed to every part of town, knocking down all the old public-houses, and depositing splendid mansions, stone balustrades, rosewood fittings, immense lamps, and illuminated clocks, at the corner of every street.

The extensive scale on which these places are established, and the ostentatious manner in which the business of even the smallest among them is divided into branches, is amusing.  A handsome plate of ground glass in one door directs you ‘To the Counting-house;’ another to the ‘Bottle Department; a third to the ‘Wholesale Department;’ a fourth to ‘The Wine Promenade;’ and so forth, until we are in daily expectation of meeting with a ‘Brandy Bell,’ or a ‘Whiskey Entrance.’  Then, ingenuity is exhausted in devising attractive titles for the different descriptions of gin; and the dram-drinking portion of the community as they gaze upon the gigantic black and white announcements, which are only to be equalled in size by the figures beneath them, are left in a state of pleasing hesitation between ‘The Cream of the Valley,’ ‘The Out and Out,’ ‘The No Mistake,’ ‘The Good for Mixing,’ ‘The real Knock-me-down,’ ‘The celebrated Butter Gin,’ ‘The regular Flare-up,’ and a dozen other, equally inviting and wholesome liqueurs.  Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood.  The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles’s, Covent-garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London.  There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city.

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