8

I was under the impression that the phrase "mother's ruin" came from the England in the 1800's, where many people living in London did so in absolute poverty, and gin (the so-called "mother's ruin") was the cheapest way of forgetting your worries.

But I've just heard a new possible origin: Canadians used actual jugs of gin as contraceptives.

Hmm.

Anyone got anything solid about its origin?

  • 1
    Your original impression was correct. But it's also true that drinking a pint of gin and having an extremely hot bath was recommended as a way to induce a miscarriage (not contraception) in 1950s Britain. – user24964 Apr 15 '14 at 17:05
  • I have added an 'answer' at the end of the page, not as an answer but as a thank you to the people who provided such excellent answers. I apologise that the bounty had to go to to just one answer. Any moderator level people, please don't remove my 'answer' as I feel with three answers so close to each other in quality I needed to explain my decision. Thanks. – Frank Apr 24 '14 at 16:27
15

Historians compare the rise of gin as England's first drug craze. It was considered a bane on society and started becoming an endemic situation.

In an attempt to control this rising problem, the government attempted to remedy the situation.

The Gin Act of 1736 whereby the government imposed a high licence fee for gin retailers and a 20 shillings retail tax per gallon. These actions were unpopular with the working-classes and resulted in riots in London in 1743. The license fee and tax were lowered significantly within a few years.

The Gin Act of 1751 prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants, restricted retail licenses to substantial property holders, and charged high fees to those merchants eligible for retail licenses. To offer the masses another invigorating (and non-alcoholic) beverage the import of tea was also encouraged.

In the book Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva, by Patrick Dillon, the setting of the age is put into perspective:

Page 203

And:

Page 204

And:

Page 208-209

There are numerous sources supporting this.

Much of the gin was drunk by women, consequently the children were neglected, daughters were sold into prostitution, and wet nurses gave gin to babies to quieten them. This worked provided they were given a large enough dose!

Source: Culture UK


All this evidence supports that the term originated in the UK in the 1700s and not in Canada. Gin was not only the favorite drink of the nation during the Gin Craze, but had become ingrained into the very foundations of society at the time and saw an increase in women consumers which led to its various feminine nicknames.

It wasn't until the Beer Act came along that this changed.


Update

While scouring for more resources, I came across this gem from the The London magazine, or, Gentleman's monthly intelligencer ... 1736. Volume 5:

Page 291

The usage of 'Mother' has already been established, so the addition of 'ruin' most probably came later on. But the small highlighted portion shows the anger some people felt towards the beverage. The essay that was written expresses a deep irritation towards the government for doing nothing to aid other alcoholic substances that did not get the kind of leniency other beverages do. Since this was released in 1736 and was a culmination of several months worth of work, perhaps this helped garner support for the Gin Act of 1736 that was so unpopular for the miserable masses.


Update 2

Taken from The life of Mother Gin; containing a true and faithful relation of her conduct and politicks, in all the various and important occurrences of state ... of the late Q-n; ... By an impartial hand (1736).

Page 30 Page 31

On Page 31 (second image), it states that the "... Ruin of Mother Gin resolved on..."

I dare not make any specific comment, but this is so far the earliest source where Mother and Ruin are this close together dated at 1736.

  • "All this evidence supports that the term originated in the UK in the 1700s" Are you suggesting the term "mother's ruin" was used in the 1700s? – Hugo Apr 19 '14 at 21:13
  • @Hugo No, the term originated around this period; the feminine nicknames for gin developed during this time. It wouldn't be called Mother's Ruin till the late 1700s or early 1800s. Perhaps I should clarify that. – Tucker Apr 19 '14 at 21:24
  • It's just curious that, although there's plenty of evidence for other nicknames, and the roots can be seen in the 1700s, there's no examples of mother's ruin itself until much later, around 1917. Did you find any citations from the late 1700s or early 1800s? – Hugo Apr 20 '14 at 9:54
  • @Hugo There are a couple of places where it is used, but not directly. I did find it references in a playbill (something along the lines of "I need me a glass o' mother's ruin." but I am unable to trace the source. I did find another possible source that may have either influenced or was influenced the terminology. – Tucker Apr 20 '14 at 10:30
  • Ooh well done! Bravo, bravo! – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '14 at 19:45
6

Origin

Gin is made from grain and juniper berries, the fruit is still plentiful and picked in London even today. I know of people who gather these wild fruits in order to make their own home-made gin, the recipe is very simple. The word gin is derived from genièvre (French), genever or jenever (Dutch), and ginepro (Italian) all meaning juniper.

Why is it called mother's ruin? Well, as mentioned by the OP it was a cheap means for forgetting your worries. And as we all know, alcohol is by nature addictive, and whereas today's gin is about 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), it was likely the homemade distilled concoction to be much greater, possibly as much as 50%. Thus a cheap, widely available, legal and highly-intoxicating spirit that proved to be an irresistible and lethal combination. It was a time when alcohol was safer to drink than mains water and, because gin wasn’t taxed, it was even cheaper than beer. It was the 18th century crack of the poor.

Until I did some research, I had always believed the myth that gin was a depressant. An English male friend once told me that gin did not make you feel merry, nor lead you to experience that feeling of euphoria which other spirits do. He explained that was why women who were in the habit of drinking gin were more likely to become depressed. I believed it, it sounded plausible until today that is.

Gin Doesn't Make You Sad

Few spirits bear so heavy a semiotic burden as gin, which is regarded by many as mother’s ruin, the destroyer, the devil, the drink that shall not be named. [...] This bad rap, I think, is partly the fault of the English artist William Hogarth. The gin of 18th-century England — harsh and cheap — is very different from what we drink now, but anyone who was shown a slide of Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” in history class is unlikely to forget the images of those dissolute Londoners: here, a man fighting a dog for a bone; there, a woman dropping her baby over a railing. There was a time when I, too, bought into the cautionary folklore. I spent much of a particularly hot, sticky New York summer drinking nothing but gin and tonic, an order that seemed to me sophisticated enough for a young woman trying her best to feel like an adult. As the weeks wore on, though, I was having a bad time of it. Relationships weren’t working out. Work was a slog. I was down. Ascribing to it powerful depressant qualities, I blamed the gin. I gave it up. For years. When I finally came back around, I approached gin with caution. Nothing happened. I felt just fine. More than fine. I came to love the stuff more than ever. And I realized it wasn’t the gin that had bummed me out all those years earlier; it was life.

It has been argued that the epithet, Mother's ruin, is largely to be blamed on William Hogarth's famous engravings; Beer Street and Gin Lane where a young mother, half-naked, inebriated, is more concerned with the object she has in hand (a snuff box?) than her baby's safety. The link above suggests that a woman called Judith Dufour is thought to be the source of Hogarth's inspiration; in 1734 she had collected her two-year-old daughter from the workhouse only to later strangle the infant, strip her naked, and leave the body in a street ditch in order to sell her new clothes for gin money. The mother was later convicted and hanged for her heinous crime. In another infamous case, Mary Estwick slept in a gin-induced stupor while yet another small child burned to death.

Such cases provided a focus for anti-gin campaigners such as the indefatigable Thomas Wilson and the image of the neglectful mother became increasingly central to anti-gin propaganda

One source claims that for every five lower-class children born in London during the 1720s and 30s, four died before the age of five.

Distilling Gin Myths

Indeed, most attribute the ‘Mother’s Ruin’ label to artist William Hogarth, who in 1751 published a series of etchings, including one called ‘Gin Lane’ that depicted disturbing scenes of a gin-soaked London. Desolate buildings and squalor dominate the picture, in which the only thriving business is the funeral home. Another etching, ‘Beer Street’, shows an affluent, thriving London. The contrast – and meaning – is clear

Beerhouse Act 1830

Why the term, "mother's ruin" made its appearance in the 1820s
In 1830 the Duke of Wellington's administration passed the Sale of Beer Act, which removed all taxes on beer, and permitted anyone to open a Beer Shop on payment of a two-guinea fee. This Bill along with rising cost of grain helped virtually end the traffic in gin smuggling.

As a result of the Gin Act passed in 1751, which had been designed to control the consumption of gin, spirit retailers still required licences to sell from rented premises at the cost of £10 a year. In order to compete with the increasingly popular beer shops, licensees devised the 'gin palaces' which first appeared about 1830. Gin palaces were large, imposing and handsome and even luxuriously furnished. By the 1850s there were about 5,000 such places in London.

Gin Craze

there was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, with numerous 'Gin Palaces' appearing.

It was only in the second half of the 19th century that gin became associated as mother's ruin. Until then it had been known as Dutch courage, Madam Geneva, Mother's milk, (perhaps inspired by Hogarth's print in 1751?) Mrs Gin as seen in the pamphlet entitled "The Downfall of Mrs Gin" depicted in Hogarth's engraving, and finally blue ruin. Eric Partridge in his A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English confirms the dates.

enter image description here

  • Ah! You also refer to Hogarth. We were looking at the same source differently. Mother's Ruin: A History of Gin may give some more details as to etymology of this term, but I don't have access. – Tucker Apr 18 '14 at 17:02
  • @Tucker yes, different sources (excluding Wiki) but with more or less the same information. No luck with the link, some pages (the most crucial ones) are not available to view. Pity... – Mari-Lou A Apr 18 '14 at 17:27
  • 1
    "Why the term, "mother's ruin" made its appearance in the 1820s" Do you mean the term "mother's milk"? Or was the term "mother's ruin" also used in the 1820? – Hugo Apr 19 '14 at 21:12
  • @Hugo I was answering Frank's question: "... but it also shows a high level of usage around 1820 as well, why is that?" However, I did find some discrepancies, online references (Google books) to mother's ruin are not directly connected to gin as such, they appear to refer to women who led "desperate" lives. Mother's milk either came before or after "blue ruin*, and mother's ruin soon after. – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '14 at 17:31
  • Cont'd; I've seen your answer, but I'm not convinced mother's ruin first surfaced in the early 1900s, so much later than the gin craze and Hogarth's prints. But of course, I don't have any evidence to prove otherwise, except for the snippet from a Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English which I've posted. – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '14 at 17:32
5
+200

The origins of the slang term mother's ruin for gin may date to the 18th century, but the term itself is first recorded much later, only in the early 20th century.

Partridge: 1937

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) says:

Some claims have been made that this should be noted as a piece of rhyming slang; the rhyme is certainly slurred enough for gin to be an influence. UK, 1937

OED: 1933

The OED's first example is from by the appropriately named W. Juniper in True Drunkard's Delight (1933):

Perhaps gin is your tipple; then you are for blue-ruin,..heartsease, mother's ruin,..Brian O'Lynn, or rag-water.

I found some earlier examples from the 1910s.

1915

The earliest is just a Google Books snippet, but the title was published in 1915 and it looks plausible.

The Secret Sea-plane (page 150) by Cyril Arthur Edward Justice Waggoner Ranger Gull (pen name: Guy Thorne):

... up ' mother's ruin ' like a canary. One of the gals, Alice, used to slip into Yarmouth till the old lady woke up about six, and began to get Lieutenant Lodz's dinner ready.

1917

The first verifiable examples come from Shadows; love story by H. Grahame Richards, published in New York in 1917:

 "By the way, what do you mean by 'mother's ruin '— drugs?" She made pretence to be convulsed with laughter. Then she regarded him quizzically through the cigar smoke. "My hat! But you are a ninny! Have you never heard of gin before? — Sweet as sin and as cruel as the devil, when you know it.

Another comes from J. Hartley Manners' Out there; a dramatic composition in three parts written in 1917, published in New York in 1918. Manners was a London-born playwright of Irish extraction who spent many years in the US. The author's foreword, dated January 1918, says the play was shown in New York from March 27th, 1917, and is set in England during the war. The line is spoken by a character "familiarly known as "Ol' Velvet", because of her partiality to the beverage known by that nickname -- gin":

DR. HANWELL You ought to send him away. " VELVET " Oh! Oh! There goes me 'eart! [Moistens her lips.] Would y' mind if I took a little? DR. HANWELL A little what? " VELVET " " Velvet/' dear — doctor. " Mother's ruin," they ...

1918

This 1918 New Zealand article refers to a song from the 1916 pantomime "The House That Jack Built", shown in Sydney:

Eliminated from this version of the House the Dame's song about gin being mother's ruin (an evident sop for grown-ups with degraded tastes)

From a 1918 Australian newspaper quoting a woman in a hotel "gin parlor":

" 'Ow did she come ter forl, my deere?" asked the second sipper of "mothers' ruin."

1919

Finally, in an Australian newspaper, "Digger Yabber" Described, THE LINGO THE AUSSIE TALKS, A GLOSSARY OF THE COMPREHENSIVE KIND" (For "The Sunday Times," by Lieutenant):

Gin is known as mother's ruin: rum as Tom Thumb or chain lightning. The letters S.R.D. (Service Rum Department) on the army rum jars he interprets as "seldom reaches destination."

2

Great answers from Tucker, Mari-Lou A and Hugo. I wish I'd only put up 100 bounty then I could have gifted 50 each to the other answers too.

While reading your answers I too was researching and discovered the same things, the 1750 peak in the ngrams seems to come from a novel or play that was printed near that time, the 1820 peak seems also to be references to the ruin of someone's mother rather than Gin as Mother's ruin.

Tucker was a right up there with 'Ruin of Mother Gin' but after looking long and hard at it I felt that wasn't the trigger that turned Gin into Mother's Ruin. Also in Tuckers comments I too felt I'd seen an 1820's direct reference to 'a drop of mother's ruin' or similar statement but couldn't find it again and nor could I find anything around that period where it was mentioned.

Mari-Lou A was just about to get it for the Partridge Dictionary of Slang saying 19th century but it was published in 1937 and seemed a little unsure of 19-20th.

My research resulted in the same conclusion is Hugo, it was definitely recorded in print in the early 20th century which leads me to think that the term would have come into verbal use not too long before that.

I would have expected the origin to have been related to Hogarth's painting (and perhaps it was) but if so, it took a long, long time.

My thanks to all three of you. I know more about debauchery in the UK's past than I ever imagined I would and I've found yet more sites leading to other areas of debauchment that I shall peruse.

1

I found this version:

Gin was called mother's ruin because in the mid eighteenth century the effects of gin on the family and economy were disastrous. Considered the poor man's drink due to its affordability, gin drinking had started out as medicine but due to its easy availability, men became impotent while women became sterile causing the London birth rate to decline drastically.

Source: UrbanDictionary.com's entry on "Mother's Ruin"

  • 1
    Can you make that into a real link? Real links are awesome source: the Internet. – Patrick M Apr 18 '14 at 15:57
1

Early instances of 'mother's ruin' as 'gin' not previously noted

Several early instances of "mother's ruin" as a slang term for "gin" have not been noted in previous answers.

First, from Charlotte Cameron, A Woman's Winter in Africa: A 26,000 Mile Journey (London, 1913):

I stare in fascinated horror. He [the steersman] passes it [a bottle of gin] on to the man beside him who is holding the sail rope ; he in turn glues his mouth to the bottle. Then the steersman takes it, and passes it to me, saying, "Mummie have—it live for good," in pidgin-English. I am glad I am born with a sense of humour. It drowned my fear, and I laughed heartily. ... The gin ("mother's ruin") I declined!

From the Birmingham [England] Daily Post (June 2, 1914) [combined snippets]:

might have been expected for Bank Holiday crowd—thoroughly enjoyed the familiar products thereof. The third which he gave (garbed this time as a middle-aged woman) was in praise of that colourless fluid which by acquired the reputation of being mother’s ruin.” It is not new, but helped out [by] suitable patter delivered in accent reminiscent of homely Lancashire, it pleased as it has pleased many times before. The other items in the programme possess both merit and variety.

From the Dundee [Scotland] People's Journal (September 26, 1914) [combined snippets]:

"Ain't got a drop of three star special, I suppose." The woman grinned. "I don't nip to brandy in Pegler's Court. A half-quartern of mother’s ruin sometimes comes this way. I've got it. There's a girl on the top floor who sometimes keeps drop of brandy."

Friom Guy Thorne, The Secret Sea-Plane (London, 1915), an instance that Hugo's answer mentions, but without providing the relevant quotation in full:

"Mrs. Potmouth was generally a bit up the pole by two o'clock in the afternoon. 'Er failing is gin. She could lap up 'mother's ruin' like a canary. One of the gals, Alice, used to slip into Yarmouth till the old lady woke up about six, and began to get Lieutenant Lodz's dinner ready. ..."

From Douglas Goldring, Polly (London, 1917):

Polly's baby was born in due course, and christened Eleanor Sophy Jane. The circumstances surrounding its birth were known only to Polly, to Mrs. Watson, and to an elderly "monthly" called Mrs. Baggot who, in the lucid moments allowed her by an undue addiction to drops of mother's ruin, declared it "a shame."

From "A Wild Wedding: Matrimony and Melee at Mortlake," in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Truth (January 5, 1918):

Presumably the dears regaled themselves with coffee and ginger beer, but in the light of subsequent events it certainly would have been better had they helped consume the stronger tuck, for then there would have been less to go to the heads of the celebrating males. It would be a pretty safe bet, however, that there was A DROP OF MOTHER'S RUIN floating around somewhere for tho old dames who felt a little run down after the day's excitement.

And from the Lanarkshire [Scotland] Daily Record (April 16, 1918) [combined snippets]:

Stern necessity is doing what nothing else could have done. [It] is performing the gigantic, miraculous feat [of] transforming the British housewife into a cook—not an Eliza Jane Bridget Ann, addicted [to] mother's ruin and fat policemen admirers, but [a] cook [of] gumption and artistic sense and selectiveness.

Also of possible relevance is this slightly later instance, from the Hull [England] Daily Mail (August 16, 1921):

A man who admitted to the Ealing magistrates that he had 'had a drop too much Lizzie' was explained to have been drinking gin. —It is interesting to note that gin has been called a variety [of] names—notably mother's ruin and white satin.

One can only wonder whether the Moody Blues were aware of that meaning of "white satin."


How did 'mother's ruin' become a slang term for 'gin'?

In order for a phrase to pass from an anathema thundered by prohibitionists to ironic slang used by imbibers of the offending substance, the phrase must first become a rhetorical staple and then gradually come to be viewed as a ludicrous overstatement. "Mother's ruin" seems to have passed through this social process. A similar fate seems to have befallen the earlier "demon rum": the spirit's enemies originally concocted the expression as the fiercest denunciation they could imagine, but eventually people came to say it almost exclusively in jest.

Use of "mother's ruin" to characterize the consequences of imbibing wine and spirits can be found in British temperance literature by the early 1880s. The following example, From Ellen Ross, "From Want of Thought," in the [Swansea, Wales] Cambrian (January 7, 1881) gives a sense of the sort of heartrending stories that temperance enthusiasts purveyed in the cause of alcohol prohibition:

About two years previously John Cuthbert [a grocer] had availed himself of the privilege held out to grocers of obtaining a license for the sale of wine and spirits; and now in his Christmas display these viands featured most prominently. ...

...

Having finished her survey of the shop, Mrs, Cuthbert was about to return to her kitchen, when her eye fell upon a young servant girl, who was one of the few customers in the shop. One of the assistants had just placed before her a bottle of gin and a bottle of brandy, which she was transferring to a bag which she carried under her shawl.

...''>"I'm very sorry," said Mrs. Cuthbert, with heartfelt concern. "The home must be very wretched, Susan. But does Mrs. Stevens really drink much?"

"Why, that dreadful, ma'am, that you'll see whether she won't be sending me here again either to-morrow or net day."

"And will she have drunk those two bottles of wine?"

"Not wine, ma'am, but spirits, and very soon they'll be finished, I can assure you. It's dreadful to see her carry on sometimes, just like a raving mad-woman, and the dear children are frightened to death at her. ..."

Mrs. Cuthbert is soon called away to attend her sister, Mrs. Lyon, in Hampshire, who is suffering from delirium tremens as a result of alcohol addiction. Her niece Alice tells her that Mrs. Lyon fell into the clutches of addiction because her neighborhood grocer had begun selling wine and spirits:

"But how did she get it?" asked Mrs. Cuthbert. "Did your father allow her to have large quantities in the house?"

"No, aunt. At first nothing extra came into the house. But she used to go out and get glass after glass of wine at the different confectioners' shops. Then, worst of all, our grocer that we have dealt with for years must needs go and transfer himself into a publican, to tempt his customers. He took out a license, and sent out his wine and spirit circulars round the town. This is what I consider completed poor mama's ruin. She would hesitate to send to a public-house day after day fo the dreadful stuff ; but she had no hesitation whatever in ordering any amount from her respectable grocer. ..."

Mrs. Cuthbert confesses that her husband has taken out a license to sell wine and spirits at his grocery, and that one of his customers (Mrs. Stevens) was now in a very bad way owing to drink.

"And do you think that one is the only one?" asked Alice. "And even if it were, is not one enough to have ruined?" Isn't it enough for our grocer to know that he has been the means of completing poor mother's ruin, and spoiling for ever the happiness of our home? Surely one is enough. Oh dear! how ever could good uncle John find in his heart to turn drink-seller!"


Conclusion

I found and confirmed one instance of "mother's ruin" as slang for gin from 1913, two from 1914, one (previously cited by Hugo) from 1915, one additional instance from 1917, and two additional instances from 1918. The sources of these seven instances are England (four of the seven, including the two earliest), Scotland (two), and Australia (one).

However, the association of a "mother's ruin" with alcoholic drink—both wine and (especially) higher-proof spirits such as gin and brandy—began considerably earlier, appearing in temperance literature by the early 1880s.

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