17

From here, though they do not cite their source:

The origins of the yard of ale date back to the early 17th century, during the reign of King James I (1603-1625). Glass-making in England was then in its infancy; the first glass-making factory had only recently been established. Many of the first yard glasses have not survived due to their brittle nature, until George Ravenscroft (1674) introduced a new glass process known as the flint glass.

The yard of ale was made and used not for normal drinking purposes, but for feast and manly displays of prowess. During Anglo-Saxon times through the Middle Ages, the English nation has always engaged in the traditions of heavy drinking. As put in Young’s quote “England’s Bane” written in 1617, “He is a man of no fashion that can not drink by the dozen, by the yard, so by measure we drink out of measure.”

Legend suggests that the yard was also used in old England to serve the driver of a coach. Upon arriving at their destination and relieving its passengers, the coachman would stay and the length of the yard glass would allow him some refreshment.

Some of the same information is repeated in Wikipedia.

I'm certain that most of the history of using this style of vessel comes from fellow drinkers trying to show each other up at parties, but aside from the sheer volume (and perhaps limitations of glass-making artisans), how did this length and volume of the glass first come about? Is there more definitive evidence for the year of birth of the yard, besides the milestone in their history of the introduction of flint glass?

I'm also curious about whether the volume of the glass was satisfying to stagecoach drivers because of their need to wait long periods for their passenger, or whether it was just easier to hand them a tall glass as they remained in the seat.

6

I found a blog post where the author has (most thoroughly, in my opinion) gone in search of some primary source of evidence for the origins of the yard glass. Unfortunately, they seem to have turned up nothing definitive.

On one point, the post is quite consistent: there isn't any real evidence to suggest that the story of the stagecoach or mailcoach driver drinking from the yard-glass is true.

It mentions sources on the history of glassmakers:

The same absence of evidence occurs in specialist books on drinking glasses. The history of the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers, published in 1898, has a drawing of the Eton “long glass”, but no coach drivers.

And also the history of coaches:

Specialist books on coach travel also fail to supply references to coach drivers and ale-yards.

The coach explanation appears to be wholly made-up:

The earliest reference to the coach driver legend I have found is from 1952

And, inferring from previous evidence provided by the author, this is almost a century after coach travel has been superseded by steam trains.

The author also makes an interesting point; a coach driver was almost certainly not handed a yard of ale from the alehouse window, because the risk of breaking the glass (which would have been expensive) was too great!

Most of the evidence of the post tends to suggest that the yard of ale was originally intended as a bit of a joke, and attempting to drink the whole thing without spilling a drop was a fun game to play.

When air reaches the bulb it displaces the liquor with a splash, startling the toper, and compelling him involuntarily to withdraw his mouth by the rush of the cold liquid over his face and dress.

To summarise, in one final quote from the most-excellent article:

But with all that, I hope you’ll agree, we have found no evidence that the yard of ale was originally “designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers” in a hurry. In fact, there is no evidence that the yard of ale was ever used to refresh coach drivers at all (and if it had been, it certainly wouldn’t have been handed up to the driver through an inn window, which would be an excellent way to either spill the ale or smash the glass). Instead, I think, it seems clear that the yard of ale was (1) produced as something of a show-off, for the glassmaker and the owner, and (2) primarily or almost solely supplied and bought as a “forfeit glass”, for use in drinking games and contests of skill, just as it is today.

  • 2
    That was an excellent article and an excellent find. Thanks! – jonsca Feb 28 '14 at 6:01
1

The 'stage-coach driver' explanation seems to be an ex post facto explanation, almost certainly affected by the fact that a post-horn (sounded by mail-coach drivers to warn tollkeepers to open the gate so as not to delay the mails) was frequently (and genuinely) called a 'yard of tin'.

The habit of calling the coach-horn the "yard of tin" arose from the fact that it really was a yard, or thirty-six inches, of tin, many of the old horns on the inferior coaches being made of tin, and not of copper or brass.

-- Highways and Horses by Athol Maudslay, cited on the excellent if somewhat obsessive [and now apparently deceased] site www.coachhorntootlers.com

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