A Brief History of Raised Glasses

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This period also witnessed some strange toasting customs. One practice called for men to show their affection for a woman by stabbing themselves in the arm, mixing their blood in their wine, and drinking to the lady in question. The Prince of Morocco in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice alludes to this when he talks of making "an incision for your love," and a song of the time rightly proclaimed,

I stabbed my arm to drink her health,
The more fool I, the more fool I.

No less repulsive was the custom, prevalent among students of the period, of proving one's love by toasting in imaginative but progressively nauseating concoctions. In his History of Toasting, Richard Valpy French tells of two Oxford students grossly proving their devotion to a beauty named Molly: "One, determined to prove that his love did not stick at trifles, took a spoonful of soot, mixed it with his wine, and drank off the mixture. His companion, determined not to be outdone, brought from his closet a phial of ink, which he drank, exclaiming, 'To triumph and Miss Molly.' "

As if this were not enough, student innovators of the time also first hit upon the wretched business of grabbing a woman's shoe, using it to ladle wine from a common bowl, and toasting the shoe's owner. Neither the shoe nor the wine benefited.
Though this was not a time of great subtlety, filrs there was an occasional hint of it. The outlawed Jacobites would publicly, though secretly, drink to their exiled Stuart monarch, Bonnie Prince Charlie, by passing their glass over a bowl of water. Thus, while ostensibly toasting the Hanoverian King George II, they were actually drinking to "the king across the water." Less subtle was this Jacobite toast:

God bless the King, I mean the Faith's Defender,
God bless-no harm in blessing-the Pretender,
But which is Pretender, and which is King?
God bless us all! that's quite another thing.

If anything, it appears that toasting became even more pervasive during the boozy eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New institutions emerged, most notably the position of toastmaster. In Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, published in 1749, there is reference to a toastmaster whose duties were to propose and announce toasts. In those days the duties of the toastmaster tended to be refereelike in that his main function was to give all toasters a fair chance to make their contribution. Then, as now, the prime rule of toastmastering was to keep sober and offend nobody.

For the most part, the toasts of this period tended to be short, crisp, and to the point-or as one student of toasting has put it, "these were not an excuse for speeches but for wit and wine." A case in point were the toasts that were given in the officer's wardroom during the days when Horatio Nelson comĀ­manded the English navy. The first toast would always be to the king with the second (changing each day) prescribed as follows:

monday:       "Our ships at sea."
tuesday:       "Our men."
wednesday:  "Ourselves."
thursday:     "A bloody war or a sickly season."
friday:          "A willing foe and sea room."
saturday:     "Sweethearts and wives."
sunday:        "Absent friends."

In contrast, the toasts of the era's sailors were more poetic:

The wind that blows, the ship that goes
And the lass that loves a sailor.

Damn his eyes,
If he ever tries
To rob a poor man of his ale.

If the toasts were frugal, the drinking that went with them was anything but. In Dyott's Diary 1781-1845 an account is given of a dinner at which the prince regent, afterward George IV, was one of the celebrants.

When after any fashionable assembly the male guests had conducted their fair partners to their homes, they returned to the supper-room. Then one of the number would drink to the health of the lady he professed to admire, and in so doing empty his glass. Another gentleman would name another lady, also drinking a bumper in her honour. The former would reply by swallowing a social glass to his lady, followed by the other, each combatant persisting till one of the two fell upon the floor. Other couples followed in like fashion. These drinking competitions were regarded with interest by gentlewomen who next morning enquired as to the prowess of their champions.

Cockburn, by the way, was literally horrified by the inane and sentimental lines that his contemporaries would utter as "an excuse for the glass." Some of the toasts which most disgusted him were: "May the hand of charity wipe away the tears from the eyes of sorrow," "May the pleasure of the evening bear the reflections of the morning," and, saving the worst for last, "The reflection of the moon in the cawn bosom of the lake."

Over the years such excesses prompted more than a few decrees, rulings, and antitoast crusades. This opposition is worthy of a moment's digression.

Among others, Charles the Great, Maximilian, and Charles V enacted laws against the vice. Even Louis XIV, not one to be put off by a touch of debauchery, finally forbade the offering of toasts at his court. It is noteworthy that one of the main objectives of the first known temperance society (founded in 1517) was the abolition of the custom of toasting. In the American Colonies, a law was put into effect in Massachusetts in 1634 that banned the custom of drinking to another's health, a practice that was deemed an "abominable . . . useless ceremony." (The law, largely ignored, was repealed in 1645.) In England a small legion of moralists, politicians, and religious leaders opposed toasting and its attendant evils. In 1713, for instance, the Bishop of Cork became so upset with the practice of drinking to the dead that he issued both a stern injunction and a widely distributed pamphlet against it. Typical of the attacks on the custom was this injection from Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale, which was written for his grandchildren.

I will not have you begin, or pledge any health, for it is become one of the greatest artifices of drinking and occasions of quarrelling in the Kingdom. If you pledge another, and a third, and so onward; and if you pledge as many as will be drank, you must be debauched and drunk. If they will needs know the reason for your refusal, it is fair to answer: "That your grandfather who brought you up, from whom, under God, you have the estate you enjoy or expect, left this in command with you, that you should never begin or pledge a health."

Of all those who crusaded against toasting, however, it would be hard to find one with a greater antagonism than William Prynne who, among other things, devoted a whole book to the link between the devil and the custom. The book, Health's Sicknesse, was published in 1628 and alleges that "the great, Deuill-god Jupiter was the first inventer, founder, and instituter of our Hellish and Heathenish Healthes." At another point he asserts "that this drinking and quaffing of healthes had its origin and birth from Pagans, heathens, and infidels, yea, from the very Deuill himself; that it is but a worldly, carnall, prophane, nay, heathenish and deuillish custom, which sauors of nothing else but Paganisme."

Prynne was certainly true to his convictions and not one to backslide at a party. On June 6, 1664, as recorded in his Diary, Samuel Pepys attended a dinner at which Prynne "would not drink any health, no, not the King's but sat down with his hat on all the while; but nobody took notice of him at all."

Interestingly, Prynne is hardly alone in his antitoast writing. Ranging from St. Augustine ("this filthy and unhappy custom of drinking healths") up through the beginning of this century, a great body of literature has been amassed against the custom. In fact, the most thorough book on the subject, The History of Toasting by the Reverend Richard Valpy French, is written by a man who despised toasting. Though scrupulously factual, French delights in bringing to light gruesome, bloody episodes in which toasting took place. He outdoes himself in telling of an ancient Danish ballad:

In one very old one, a husband after treacherously murdering his wife's twelve brothers during their sleep, and whilst they were his guests, fills a cup with their blood, which he brings to his wife that she might pledge him in it. Many years after, the wife, in retaliation, whilst her husband's relations are visiting him, steals out of bed at dead of night, murders them all, fills a cup with their gore, returns to her husband's chamber, and whilst he still sleeps securely, ties him hand and foot. She then wakes him, and after mockingly asking him to pledge her in the cup of blood, dispatches him. At that moment their baby in its cradle wakes up and cries out, so the mother, fearing lest in afterlife her son should avenge his father's murder, makes matters safe by quietly dashing its brains out.

French also uncovered such things as an ancient tribe, "the old Guebres," who exposed the corpses of their parents to the "fowls of the air," then reserved only the skulls from the decay and fashioned cups from them.

Such skulduggery notwithstanding, there were those who promoted toasting as a blessing, as an amenity and a graceful custom with, as one Victorian writer put it, "a quality as pleasant as a handshake, as warm as a kiss."