Focusing on four European cities between c.1600 and c.1850 – Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm – this two-year project (2019–21) explores the impact of new intoxicants on urban public spaces, the role of urban public spaces in assimilating them into European behaviours, and the often exploitative international systems through which they were produced, trafficked, and consumed. Via our events, our online exhibition, and our work with museums, NGOs, and schools, we hope to demonstrate that understanding these processes offers a vital historical perspective on urgent contemporary questions surrounding drug use and abuse, addiction, migration, inclusion and exclusion within public spaces, and the place of intoxicating substances within everyday life.
Seas of rustic little-boy-blue flowers lining the paths stole the show on our summer wanderings through the rolling fields of Thuringia. I bored the kids as I analogously puzzled over its name. Was it a cornflower? Some kind of dandelion? A quick web search back at basecamp revealed all: chicory. A pretty, prolific weed with a weighty history. Ever heard of ‘caro’ or ‘muckefuck’ (meaning something like brown rotten wood in the German Rhine dialect)? All made from the root of the humble chicory plant. But why and when did Europeans start using chicory as a substitute for coffee? What does the history of ‘fake’ coffee have to do with that of ‘real’ coffee?
One of the key sources we’re using to reconstruct the intoxicating spaces of our four case study cities the so-called ego documents that proliferated across our period: diaries, letters, memoirs, and travel accounts. Some of the UK’s best manuscript holdings of these sources can be found at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, so last week saw me on a train to the crisp and autumnal dreaming spires to work through a selection.
1784 and the European tea market was in upheaval. The most lucrative part of the continental East India trade had suddenly been undermined by a radical tax reform in Britain, the so-called Commutation Act of 1784. For decades, East India companies based in France, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries brought a vast amount of tea to Europe. The tea was sold to smugglers who supplied the black market in Britain, where tea was taxed heavily, often well over 100 percent. According to some estimates in the mid-eighteenth century, more than three-quarters of all tea consumed in Britain entered the country as contraband!