At the Alcohol Drugs History Conference, Under Control?, held in London from June 20 to June 23, Stella Moss gave a very interesting and somewhat horrifying talk about “Methylated spirit consumption and the control of deviant drinking in interwar Britain.” Methylated spirit is denatured alcohol. Hospitals and businesses use this product for cleaning and other things.
In Britain, the Customs and Excise department regulates methylated spirits. Denatured alcohol is not meant to be drunk. In fact it contains methanol and other additives to prevent consumption. It is 19 per cent alcohol. At the present there are about 500 prosecutions a year in Britain for meths drinking.
Drinking denatured alcohol can cause blindness and other problems. During Prohibition many people drank denatured alcohol which is poisonous and I imagine tastes awful.
Methylated spirits is a surrogate drink; other products that serve this functional are antifreeze and hand gel. What all these products have in common are that they are cheap, relative to commercially produced alcohol.
Denatured alcohol is a byproduct of the tax code. Because states tax ethanol, drinkable alcohol, it would be too expensive for business to use ethanol for industrial purposes.
Restrictions on pubs and British drinking during World War 1 had led to moderate drinking during the 1920s. Because habitual drinkers had less access to alcohol in mainstream establishments they turned to methylated spirits.
Often people mixed the meths with other substances, using some form of ethanol. A red biddy was red wine and meths while a red Lizzie was meths mixed with Lisbon wine. Most meths drinkers were very poor.
There seems to have been lot of compulsion associated with drinking methylated spirits. Because it is a purple color the meths drinker had a distinctive look with purple lips.
Society saw the meth’s drinker as deviant, as other. This is very similar to the current portrayal in America of the crystal methamphetamine user.