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The Pint that Thinks it’s a Quart

July 27, 2015


I’m in my Rotterdam hotel room in a state of restless expectation because today the eighteenth-century Olympics begin.  I mean the Olympiad for eighteenth-centuryists.  The world of eighteenth-century studies has come to Rotterdam just as four years ago, it came to Graz in Austria and in four years time it will be in Edinburgh.

(This is not to be confused with discussion and implementation of the Olympic Games in the eighteenth-century – the subject of a journal special issue I co-edited.)

There is of course no pleasure on earth equal to a really well run eighteenth-century studies conference but right now all I can think of is that 1970s beer commercial for Whitbread (Big Head) Trophy Bitter – the pint that think’s it’s a quart.

I feel I should point out that the gentleman on the right is wielding a monster that must contain far more than a quart.  It looks more like a gallon.  The pathetic attempts of the guy on the left to somehow magic his pint into a quart repay repeated viewing.  I half expect to see small print and a rapid soft voice at the end saying “Whitbread Trophy Beer is not actually sold in quarts”.

The reason this is absorbing me is wholly professional.  The price of a quart of beer in the mid eighteenth-century was pretty much  fixed at 3d.  This means that the sixpence entry fee at the Robin Hood debating club on Butcher’s Row near the Strand essentially paid for a four pint argument.   However what I’m not yet clear about is the extent to which this “pot” of beer (a pewter tankard for the most part) was not actually delivered and served in a quart measure.  Did people drink quarts at a time on a regular basis?  Was a “pint” considered a “half”?  Did you buy your own quart and drink it on your own?  If you were on something like a shilling a day minimum wage then a quart was also a quarter of your daily income.  Did you share your quart with a friend who had his (or even her) own mug?  Were you committed to buying at least two quarts just to be sociable making four pints the absolute minimum you could politely consume in a tavern or alehouse?

Look closely at the fat guy on the left in this engraving by Hogarth.  This is “Beer Street” – the recto to “Gin Lane’s” verse – the emblem of all that’s healthy and positive about social drinking in the eighteenth century.  He’s certainly got a pewter tankard – and I think he’s drinking a quart rather a pint.  But I welcome dissenting opinions.

beer st

If I could be sure of these issues then I’d feel closer to the eighteenth-century than ever before.  I’d belong here in Rotterdam.

Although I’d also have to deal with the emasculating reality that I’ve been drinking halves for my entire adult life.


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