Most of us grew up associating Punch Bowls with a huge, overly ornate bowl, often bucket sized, that our parents or grandparents kept on a sideboard and only used for fancy parties. In the 18th Century, that punchbowl would have seen much more use.
According to legend, punch was introduced to England in the early-to mid-17th century when British sailors and merchants returned home from travels to India, where they had been introduced to the concoction. Adapted from the Hindu word panch, meaning five, punch was historically made according to the “Rule of Five.” As the saying goes, “One sour, two sweet, three strong, four of weak, and spices make five”—meaning citrus, sugar, spirit, water, and spice, such as nutmeg. Although the elixir was enjoyed throughout Europe, it earned its greatest popularity in England, where it was commonly offered at men’s clubs and so-called “punch houses,” which were public establishments where the beverage was served from large communal bowls.
The earliest punch bowls were made of delftware or silver, the latter particularly favored by the upper class, which considered silver serving pieces to be important status symbols. An intriguing early version of the punch bowl is the silver Monteith bowl with its distinctive crenellated rim. Originally, the vessel was designed for cooling wine glasses—when the bowl was filled with cold water, glasses could be chilled upside down, with their stems nestled in the notches of the rim. As punch became more popular, the bowl was pressed to do double-duty as a serving bowl with the glasses arranged outside.
Punch was often drunk at gatherings of clubs and societies, usually held in taverns, coffee houses, or special punch-houses. Drinking punch seems to have been a highly sociable act that strengthened social ties. “…we hope nothing will ever hinder a Man drinking a Bowl of Punch with his Friend, that’s one of the greatest pleasures we enjoy in the Country, after our labour.” Punch bowls were made to commemorate special events; they were decorated with the names of guilds or societies, or with images and symbols such as ships.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, there was widespread alarm about the dangers of overindulging in alcohol. This was fueled by the widespread availability of cheap, home-distilled gin. Temperance societies began to associate excessive punch drinking with all sorts of bad behavior. Excessive drinking in general was often linked with moral decline, and punch parties were usually satirized by contemporary artists as raucous and uncivilized.
Of course, this was not really true, at least in the taverns, punch houses, and parties of the 1750s. Because punch was served from large porcelain and earthenware punch-pots, and these were ornate and expensive vessels, punch was served in a controlled manner by one person – just like tea rather than the temperance view of a raucous free-for-all communal punch bowl, where people could help themselves and easily drink to excess. Georgian high society was so conscience of preventing over indulgence that even the manner of serving was highly controlled. The toddy lifter resembles a decanter with a bulbous base, a flat collar around its open neck and, most importantly, a hole in its bottom. Used like a siphon or a pipette, the bulb of the toddy lifter would be submerged in the punch bowl until it filled with liquid (often to an etched mark). Placing a finger over the open neck created a vacuum to hold the liquid inside the bulb allowing the server to dispense a very precise amount of punch in each glass. When the toddy lifter was positioned over a glass, the server lifted his finger and the drink poured out.
So, enjoy — “Let us eat and drink, and after death there will be no pleasure.” (Edamus bibamus post mortem nullas voluptas)
“You may talk of brisk claret; sing the praises of sherry; but you must drink punch to be merry!”