Changing Drinking Cultures? Young Women’s Drinking in Post-War and Contemporary Britain

Laura Fenton

Drinking cultures change in tandem with wider social, cultural and economic transformations. In what follows, I draw on research conducted for my PhD thesis to explore this idea through the example of changes in young women’s experiences with alcohol and pub culture in post-war and contemporary Britain.

The thesis explores the place of alcohol in the day-to-day lives of 38 women born between 1939 and 1995 from working class and middle class backgrounds.  Life history interviews, several of which drew on the techniques of photo and object elicitation to anchor and enrich the accounts provided, were conducted with women to construct their ‘drinking biographies’, that is, their narrative accounts of their experiences and understandings of alcohol starting with childhood and ending in the present day. The inclusion of participants from different birth cohorts allowed for qualified, contextualised comparisons to be drawn across generations, as well as for an exploration of some differences across social classes. The research design enabled me, in a dialogue with participants, to construct accounts of how ways of accessing, experiencing and evaluating alcohol shifted as women grew older, a topic that has thus far been largely neglected in existing research. Rather than focusing on women’s relationships at a fixed moment of historical time, the research sought to animate women’s negotiations with alcohol by exploring these across shifting socio-historical contexts as well as biographies. I found that women have complex personal and collective histories with alcohol; multiple meanings accrue over historical, as well as over biographical, time.

Tracing changes across generations also meant tracing wider changes across the historical contexts in which members of different generations navigated the life course. At present, limited research exists on women’s drinking during the post-war period.  Langhamer (2003, p. 437) suggestively states toward the end of her article on women’s drinking on the home front during the Second World War that in “the 1960s and 1970s the public house became a mainstay for the young in their leisure hours and began to make real and lasting inroads into young women’s cultural lives.”  However, Gutzke (2014, p. 64) claims that the unwelcoming atmosphere of most post-war pubs and sexist advertising by breweries meant that most women avoided the pub. He uses data from market research to hypothesise that the wartime experience had the opposite effect on women’s pub-going than that suggested by Langhamer: “Instead of predisposing women, especially young ones, towards drinking in pubs, the war had an ironic opposite effect: it ingrained deep hostility in many juvenile and young women to ever frequenting drink premises thereafter” (p. 64). According to Gutzke, women’s use of licensed premises began to increase slowly from the mid-1970s, first with the introduction of wine bars and later with the advent of pub companies (e.g. Pitcher and Piano, J.D. Wetherspoon), both of which sought to attract female customers.


While my research design does not allow for generalizable conclusions, my study provides some provisional support for Gutzke’s identification of the 1970s as a turning point in the social accessibility of alcohol and increased opportunities for women’s drinking in licensed premises. The women in my study who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s had limited experience of drinking as young women. When they ventured into pubs for the first time in their late teens, they tended to be in the company of men. Going to pubs or accessing alcohol elsewhere was not narrated having been a priority.  Pubs were typically associated with men of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations, and were generally not viewed as desirable places to socialise with friends, beyond the occasional ‘double date’. They spoke instead of spending their ‘free time’ participating in a wide range of leisure activities – from trips with youth clubs, to roller skating, to meeting up with friends at dance halls. When alcohol was present on such occasions, it was described as peripheral to the main activity. In addition to having access to wider forms of leisure, a lower school leaving age and pressures to contribute to the household economy from the age of 15 meant that they took on some of the responsibilities associated with adulthood at a younger age than those born in later decades.  I argue that accessing adulthood through the consumption of drink and its spaces was perhaps less appealing for these women because adulthood signified responsibility.

p036ygylBy contrast, encountering and experimenting with alcohol as a teenager was an almost universal experience for women in the study who were born after 1960 (n= 28). For these participants, gaining access to alcohol and the spaces in which it was consumed were part of their attempts to ‘pass’ as older, and to push away from their own and other’s images of themselves as children. As 14 and 15 year old girls on the threshold of young adulthood, considerable effort was invested in procuring fake identification and working up a presentation of self through styling hair, applying make-up and appropriating the fashion choices of young adult women in order to gain entry into pubs, bars and nightclubs. Here, a chief attraction was the atmosphere of such places, as well as the alcohol itself. Alcohol was also sought from parents’ cupboards and off-licenses, often for consumption in parks and alleyways or at the house of a friend with ‘easy going’ parents. In these accounts, drinking was narrated as pleasurable and as enabling one to act ‘silly’ without fear of judgement. Attempts to access alcohol and the spaces in which it is was consumed were simultaneously attempts to temporarily access the perceived glamour, sophistication and independence associated with being a young adult.

Returning to the wider question of how and why drinking cultures change, developments within the alcohol and hospitality industries described by Guzke (2014) were clearly important in providing a context in which increased numbers of young women sought access to licensed premises. However, so were changes in the cultural meaning and socio-economic organisation of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and crucially the place of alcohol in the negotiation of ‘growing up.’

Laura Fenton is Lecturer in Sociology and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives at the University of Manchester. Her research interests include the sociology of everyday life, gender, alcohol and creative qualitative methods. Laura has published articles and reviews in a number of social science journals, including Women’s History Review and Space and Culture. She convenes the British Sociological Association’s Alcohol Study Group, and is Social Media Officer for the Drinking Studies Network.


Gutzke, D. W. (2014). Women drinking out in Britain since the early twentieth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Langhamer, C. (2003).  ‘“A public house is for all classes, men and women alike”: gender, leisure, and drink in Second World War England’. Women’s History Review, 12 (3), pp. 423- 443.

Lutheranism and Drunkenness in 17th Century Finland

Jenni Lares

The question of how and why drinking cultures change is a very problematic one, since drinking cultures are slow to change and usually it is hard to discern the various factors affecting them. In this blog post, I will try to examine how the long reformation changed the church’s attitudes towards drinking on holy days in early modern Finland. This is not a comprehensive study but a short presentation of religious ideals and their practice in one rural part of Europe. When compared to other early modern drinking studies, it is easy to see that the same questions of drinking on holy days were present around Europe.[1] The laws and statutes regulating behavior on holy days in Sweden[2] were given as late as the 17th century, but their enforcement was quite strict. These regulations were first only a matter of church obedience but were later adapted to secular law and behavior outside the church. Drunkenness in church was criminalized in 1686 and otherwise in 1733.[3]

The Reformation was a long period with many different outcomes. In Sweden, the most important outcome was the use of confiscated church wealth and power in building a centralized state and government. The Lutheran Church became an integral part of the new state, and especially in the 17th century, the state paid considerable attention to religious uniformity. This period of Lutheran Orthodoxy also meant the unification of ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction and court practices.[4]

According to B. Ann Tlusty, the reformation did not at first change the concepts on drinking and drunkenness. In late medieval Germany, drunkenness was connected to the cardinal vice of gluttony, since theologians saw overeating and drinking as a waste of God’s gifts.[5] This medieval understanding on sinful drinking was undoubtedly applied in Finland, and the practice of connecting excessive drinking with wasteful spillage continued after the conversion to Lutheranism. A Finnish hymn from the mid-16th century warns about drinking so long that one loses all their belongings and has to resort to begging and stealing.[6] The sermon and prayer book by a Finnish priest Laurentius Petri Aboicus, printed in 1644, connects overeating and drinking in almost every one of its dinnertime prayers, and warns how God can take away what he has given if it is used wrongly.[7]

Of course, sinfulness is not the whole picture of medieval or even Lutheran drinking, and many positive attitudes towards drinking were present. Even Laurentius Petri encourages moderate drinking, and reminds his reader to thank God of these gifts of food and various drinks. Both the secular and ecclesiastical authorities together with lay people saw drinking as an important part of occasional feasting and well-earned rest.

pic 1
Various Nordic drinking vessels in Olaus Magnus’ “Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus”, History of the Northern Peoples, 1555.

Some important changes happened during the 17th century relating to the sale of alcohol by the church. During the Middle Ages it was common to celebrate religious holidays by the church and drink together with other parishioners.[8] The first known attempt to regulate drinking during holy days in Finland was made in 1541 when King Gustavus Vasa forbade the sale of beer by the church. This was quite ineffective, as was the vague notion of the Church Order of 1571 not to hold markets during holy days. The control of ecclesiastical time and behavior became more efficient when the 1665 statute on Sabbath crimes made it possible to condemn violators of holy days in secular courts.  The statute forbade the sale of alcohol from the evening before the holy day until the end of mass. The officials recognized the medieval tradition of going for a drink after the mass, since other tradesmen and crafters were not allowed to open their shops during holy days. It is obvious from the court records that people did go to nearby taverns after the mass, sold drinks by the church, and some even skipped the mass to go drinking.

Both the Church Order of 1571 and Statute on Sabbath Crimes in 1665 had forbade indecent behavior in church, like loud noises or sleeping, whether they were the results of drinking or not. This reflects the traditional view of condemning drinking based on the consequences, not on drinking itself. Ecclesiastical attitudes towards inebriation changed at the end of the 17th century, and the Church Law of 1686 criminalized drunkenness in church. The law associated drunken churchgoers with people who have not confessed their sins or have been excluded from the communion, and violators were sentenced to pay a huge fine of 100 silver dalers. Altogether, from this point on drinkers were officially seen as unsuitable for communion and congregation, not just based on the results of drinking, but for drinking itself.

pic 2
Demons tease drinkers in a medieval wall painting from the church of Lohja

It is interesting how the new law was put into practice in rural local courts. Although the harsh fine is not visible in my sources, the principle of drinking as punishable in itself was applied to violations of church peace and holy days. In earlier cases, the accused was sentenced for the results of drinking; now the use of alcohol became punishable. In one case from the parish of Loimaa in 1693, a man had fallen asleep during the sermon, and the vicar had reported him to the court.[9] The man, Påhl Jöransson, could not deny that he had been drinking, although he tried to defend himself by saying that he had only taken some spirits because he felt sick.  The men who had been sitting next to him in church tried to defend the man by saying he had not disturbed anyone, but since Påhl had already admitted to the drinking, the court sentenced him to a relatively small fine of two marks and two Sundays in the stocks. [10]  It is possible that the vicar’s word weighed more than the words of men who might have been friends of Påhl, but the court specifically decided that the testimonies on sleeping were not relevant anymore, since the accused has confessed to drinking. Although most of the accused were taken to court for some kind of indecent behavior, the role of drunkenness in the court cases is very different from what it was before the Church law of 1686.

The change in legal practice is a clear one, but the change in lay people’s drinking habits took longer. The complaint about drinking parishioners was so common in the premodern era that it can be seen as a literary formula telling us more about the attitudes of priests than the actual behavior of people. The 18th century saw criminalization of drunkenness also outside the church and various ineffective distilling prohibitions. Legislation aimed to change religious and festive drinking, but it does not seem to be very efficient in the early modern period. Long into industrialization and the 19th century, the rural population in Finland had a very traditionalistic view on alcohol; it was still an important part of occasional feasting and well-earned rest – and still enjoyed on ecclesiastical holy days.

Jenni Lares is writing her doctoral thesis at the University of Tampere, Finland. Her thesis focuses on social meanings of drinking in early modern rural Western Finland. e-mail:, twitter: @jenni_lares, LinkedIn:


Primary sources

District Court Records, National Archives of Finland (NA), Helsinki.

Juopumuxest [On drunkenness], a hymn by Hemminki Maskulainen (c. 1550–1619), a Finnish priest and poet. Digitalized according to psalm book of 1701 in

 Selityxet Joca-Päiwäisten Huomen-Ehto ia Ruocaluku eli siunausten, yksinkertaisil saarnoill edespannut Laurent: Petri Aboico minist. verbi Dei in Loimijoki, 1644. A Finnish sermon and prayer book by vicar Laurentius Petri Aboicus. Digitalized in

 Church Law, 1686. Digitalized in Swedish and Finnish in


Hailwood, Mark 2014. Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

Kallio, Kati; Lehtonen, Tuomas M. S.; Timonen, Senni; Järvinen, Irma-Riitta; Leskelä, Ilkka 2017. Laulut ja kirjoitukset: Suullinen ja kirjallinen kulttuuri uuden ajan alun Suomessa. [Songs and writings: oral and literary cultures in early-modern Finland] Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki. With an English summary. Published online in .

Kuha, Miia 2016. Pyhäpäivien vietto varhaismodernin ajan Savossa (vuoteen 1710). [The Observance of Holy Days in Early Modern Savo (Eastern Finland)] Doctoral dissertation with an English summary, University of Jyväskylä. Published online in .

Kümin, Beat 2007. Drinking matters. Public houses and Social Exchange in Early Modern Central Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Tlusty, B. Ann 2001. Bacchus and Civic Order. The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany. The University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Toivo, Raisa Maria 2008. Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Finland: Finland and the Wider European Experience. Ashgate, Hampshire.

Toivo, Raisa Maria 2016. Faith and Magic in Early Modern Finland. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke.

[1] On general, see Kümin 2007, 80-81, 163; on Germany, see Tlusty 2002, 73, 75-76; on England, see Hailwood 2014, 101-107.

[2] Finland was a part of the Swedish realm from the Middle Ages to 1809, and the language for administration was Swedish.

[3] In England the criminalization happened more than a hundred years earlier, in 1606. Hailwood 2014, 25.

[4] On Lutheran Reformation in Finland, see Kallio et al. 2017, Kuha 2016, and Toivo 2016.

[5] Tlusty 2002, 72-73.

[6] Juopumuxest [On drunkenness].On the importance of psalms and singing in Lutheran Finland, see Kallio et al. 2017.

[7] Selityxet … 1644.

[8] Hailwood 2014, 5. In Central Europe this was still the case in 17th c., see Kümin 2004, 174-176.

[9] NA Loimaa 3-4. and 6.2.1693. Ylä-Satakunta, KO a13: 1v-2v.

[10] 1 daler i 4 marks, so this sum is far from the high fine of 100 dalers. Two marks was the most common punishment for church disturbances, but not everyone could afford it. If the offender could not afford the fines, they were changed to sitting in the stocks or imprisoned.

What is drinking culture and how do we change it?

The development of the Alcohol Cultures Framework to inform health promotion practice and social change in drinking cultures

Emma Saleeba

Have you ever wondered exactly what the term ‘drinking culture’ means?

Whilst some may argue that its meaning is self-evident, the need for it to be clearly defined for public health purposes is required for social research and the design and evaluation of public health projects that target alcohol problems.

Many others use the term in its common sense form including the media, academics, governments and alcohol industry. Our goal was to develop a shared public health understanding that could guide our research and efforts to build evidence-based strategies for alcohol-harm reduction.

Within this post we discuss the developmental research, the Framework itself and its early application in Victoria, Australia to inspire social change in different subcultures and settings.

Developmental research

In 2015, The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) partnered with Latrobe Universities’ Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR) to undertake a literature review to better understand the meaning of “drinking culture”, clearly define it and examine how health promotion practice could influence change.

We were surprised to find that the literature offered very little in terms of its meaning. However, searching the single term of ‘culture’ resulted in 164 different definitions – with little consensus.

The interesting thing about drinking cultures is that whilst the concept is ill-defined, we are all incredibly interested in them. Since the early 2000s, the number of academic journal articles that contain the term has steadily increased (see Figure 1).

fig 1

Figure 1. Journal articles in the SCOPUS database containing the term “drinking culture/s” between 1967 and 2014.

This posed an important question – how can we expect to research or change drinking cultures and evaluate our efforts if we don’t have consensus about what it is we are trying to change?

To answer this, our team of researchers drew upon all of the evidence and posed an academic working definition, available here.

Considering the definition is not simple nor straightforward, below we summarise the key points.

  • The concept requires a shift from thinking about individual behavior or alcohol as a product to focus on the norms – or the cultural rules of a group or society that affect behavior.
  • Norms can operate at different levels, they are context specific and can impact the way people drink in different ways. For example a norm could be buying a round of drinks followed by reciprocation.
  • The sanction of norms can be formal such as laws or policy (identification required to purchase liquor) or codes of conduct (in the workplace). Or they can be informal sanctions such as a raised eyebrow or a disapproving look from a friend.
  • Norms are not static or homogenous, they are complex, multiple and moving and are part of a network of other interacting factors that influence the way people drink alcohol, for example gender, age, social class, social networks, masculinity, policy, marketing etc. The degree and nature of the influence that drinking cultures have on individuals is not inevitable but will depend on the configuration of factors in play in any given situation.

Our working definition provided an understanding of what drinking culture is, but we needed to be able to practically apply this concept and gain buy-in from our stakeholders.

The Alcohol Cultures Framework

To inform the Framework, VicHealth, CAPR and the Alcohol and Drug Foundation joined forces to collaborate on an extensive stakeholder consultation process to seek the opinions of the alcohol prevention and harm reduction sector experts and refine the approach for health promotion purposes.

In mid- 2016 we published our findings as the Alcohol Cultures Framework.

Its purpose is to be used as a planning tool for public health workers and others with an interest in shifting drinking cultures to reduce harm. The Framework defines alcohol cultures and provides a lens for designing and implementing programs.

We agreed upon a shorter and more practical definition, we define drinking cultures as…

“the way people drink including the formal rules, social norms, attitudes and beliefs around what is and what is not socially acceptable for a group of people before, during and after drinking”.

We articulate the vision we are seeking to achieve. We would like to see people socially supporting one another to engage in low-risk drinking practices.

Such a culture can be described as:

  • a supportive policy, physical and social environment where people do not feel pressure to drink
  • when alcohol is consumed it is done at levels of low risk
  • social pressure supports low risk drinking and discourages high risk drinking
  • occurrences of drinking are reduced
  • intoxication is socially rejected.

We identified four frames for intervention: societal, setting, subculture and family-individual. The Framework outlines examples of factors that influence the way people drink across the frames and suggests critical questions to consider when planning health promotion strategies.

For a two minute overview of the Framework, watch this YouTube clip.

The Alcohol Culture Change Initiative

VicHealth has invested AUD $3.1 million – over 24 months – to test the application of the Framework in practice across nine projects that target different drinking cultures across Victoria, Australia.

For more about the projects, click here.

In December 2017, VicHealth launched the Culture Change blog, the articles are all written with the purpose of sharing real time updates and key lessons from VicHealth’s Alcohol Culture Change Initiative as they emerge.

The Initiative is being rigorously evaluated by LaTrobe University and includes the development of a set of common indicators to measure alcohol culture change. The indicators measure the following domains: drinking frequency with group, risk of short-term harm with group, very high risk of short-term harm with group, acceptance of not drinking with group, influence to drink more with group, influence to drink less with group, initiation of conversation about alcohol, recognition of visible drunken behaviour, alcohol culture – comfort with getting drunk, social customs – pre-loading, and social customs – round buying.

Indicators will be used across each project (where relevant) to measure change.

For further information and enquiries please email

Emma Saleeba is the Manager of Alcohol & Tobacco at VicHealth. Emma is responsible for VicHealth’s programs and investments in relation to preventing tobacco use and harm from alcohol. Emma holds a Masters degree in Public Health and has considerable experience across health promotion policy and program development, project implementation and advocacy.