We aimed to map the context of the large increase in vodka consumption in Sweden during the transition from early modern to modern times (c. 1775-1855). What were the attitudes to alcohol among the groups that dominated society, and how did these attitudes relate to contemporary legislation and socio-economic change?
Qualitative analysis of diaries and memoirs. Information was also collected from legislation, writings of the temperance movement and previous research.
During the period studied, attitudes to alcohol among the socio-economic elite were positive if the drinker was a person of standing, whereas drinking among the working population was scorned and, from the 1830s onwards, a cause for concern. Legislation was characterized by frequent and radical changes. Consumption levels are difficult to estimate: in the 1820s, agricultural overproduction, liberal legislation and improved distilling methods probably resulted in a major consumption increase. In 1846-53, permissive licensing laws and the industrialization of distilling similarly led to very high consumption levels.
In Sweden in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the social elite appears to have used alcohol as a tool in their negotiations with the working population but later, as the spread of wage labour and cheap vodka coincided with Sweden's largest ever population growth, the view that popular drinking must be checked gained support in leading circles.