Wine glasses now seven times larger than in Georgian era

A new study published in the British Medical Journal has revealed that the size of a wine glass has increased almost seven times since 1700, rising from an average capacity of 66ml to 449ml in 2016/17.

Image: Riedel

Put together by director and professor of behaviour and health, Theresa M Marteau; senior statistician Dominique-Laurent Couturie; research associate Zorana Zupan, and MPhil student Alexandra Evans, the study charts the growth of the wine glass which was “gradual” until the 1990s, when the increase in size became more marked.

The team studied glasses stored at the Ashmolean Museum dating from 1700 to 1800 as well as glassware from the Royal Household, where a new set was commissioned for the coronation of each new monarch between 1808 and 1947.

In addition, the scientists gained access to the catalogues from English glassware manufacturer Dartington Crystal which covered the years from 1967 to 2017. They also browsed two sources in the public domain: records from auction and retail website eBay, with glasses dating from 1840 to 2016, as well as information from department store John Lewis.

The findings reveal that “wine glass capacity increased in all time periods from 1800 to 2017”. The team concluded that possible reasons for this rise were changes in several factors including price, technology, societal wealth, and wine appreciation.

Enamelled Jacobite portrait glass. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Furthermore, they suggested that the reason why wine glasses did not increase in size until 1800 could be attributed to the levying of the ‘glass excise’ tax, first introduced in 1746 and abolished in 1845. Glass production techniques also improved in the late 19th century, changing from the labour intensive mouth blowing technique to a more automated process.

The more rapid rise in the 1990s has been attributed to wine glasses being designed for specific grape varieties. The demand for larger wine glasses in US from the 1990s began to dictate designs in English glassware too, according to records stored by Dartington Crystal.

Wine consumption in Britain also started to rise from the later 20th century, as members of the lower social classes, whose consumption had largely been restricted to beer and spirits, were increasingly drinking more wine.

The consumption of alcohol in general rose during this period, with wine drinking rising almost fourfold between 1960 and 1980, and almost doubling once more between 1980 and 2004.

Finally, the team state that glass size was also in part driven by retailers who witnessed wine sales rise when using larger glasses, citing evidence from a previous study also conducted by a team at the University of Cambridge.

The scientists admit that they are unsure as to how representative the wine glasses studied are of the period in question. They took into account the “endurance advantage” of smaller glasses, meaning that larger ones were likely to break more easily, resulting in the loss of records and the distortion of the subsequent findings.

The team countered this argument by stating that all glasses damaged in the Royal Household were either remade or repaired, therefore maintaining the original dimensions of the glasses. Moreover, the dimensions of the glasses were recorded in the Dartington Crystal catalogues.

The research also poses the question: can reducing the size of glasses also decrease wine consumption?

The scientists conclude that: “we cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked. Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking”. They do however suggest that the subject requires more work about how wine glass size is linked to population health.

They cite the “the unit bias heuristic” in which people consume in units, for example one glass or one cup. When presented with a larger glass that is less full, people consider the amount to be less than one unit, when the volume is in fact equivalent to a full smaller glass.

England also differs from continental Europe in that wine is increasingly offered in 250ml servings, with the smaller volume of 125ml often absent from lists, in spite of a regulatory requirement introduced in 2010 which stipulates that licensees must “make customers aware of these smaller measures”.

Additionally, the scientists refer to a 2013 study, which found that the strength of wine sold in the UK since the 1990s has increased. They therefore conclude that “the amount of pure alcohol that wine drinkers consume has likely risen in line with larger glasses”.

Commenting on the findings, Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA, told the Guardian: “The size of a wine glass reflects the trend and fashions of the time and is often larger for practical reasons. Red wine, for example, is served in a larger glass to allow it to breathe, something which perhaps wasn’t a priority 300 years ago”.

Image: BMJ

3 Responses to “Wine glasses now seven times larger than in Georgian era”

  1. Graham Sherwood says:

    Whilst this may be perfectly true it is less sensational than it sounds.

    Those tiny glasses (owned by incredibly rich and/or wealthy people (who used to drink wine in those days) would have been filled to the top and continually filled by the servants/butler.

    Today’s balloons in general are only partly filled so would only have a commensurate volume of liquid in them as those the Georgians quaffed!

  2. David Bird says:

    Consumption is not related to the size of †he glass. It has been realised that the glass needs to be bigger, not to hold more wine, but to be able to appreciate the wine more fully. The biggest rogues in this saga are the restaurants and bars who deliberately conceal the 125ml size and promote the 175ml and 250ml as the two most prevalent sizes. I have even come across a hotel that has stated that they do not offer the 125ml size.

  3. If you’ve been to one of my seminars, the chances are that you’ve heard the amusing story I tell about my father, Michael Broadbent, which goes like this. “Though my parents were in the wine business they aren’t big drinkers. Except that they always have Champagne for breakfast because orange juice is so boring without Champagne. Then nothing until lunch, except if you went to see my father at Christie’s you’d be given Madeira because their coffee was so bad. But otherwise nothing before lunch except for a Bloody Mary. They’d then have white and red wine with lunch and Port after, but that’s not drinking, it is part of the meal. But nothing else until dinner, except that the Christie’s afternoon tea was so bad that you’d get Madeira instead. Before dinner, they would have one drink, either a gin and tonic or whiskey and then, of course, white and red wine with dinner followed by Port. However, because of my father’s heart, his doctor told him “you have to have something to drink every day before bed”, so then he has a Grand Marnier.”

    Of course, most people don’t believe this story but it is true and, if people believe it, they think that they must be total alcoholics and drunk all day. What I don’t tell them is that the size of wine glass is totally different. As this article shows, in the 1990s the wine glass sizes started increasing dramatically.

    It is shocking that you go to a restaurant these days and they pour four glass per bottle. Not only is that too much wine, especially with today’s higher alcohols, but it makes the cost of a glass of wine too high. In Europe, a wine pour is smaller and therefore much cheaper. In fact, when I tell people that there are 7 – 8 glasses per bottle, they don’t understand. They think there is a maximum of 5, more likely 4.

    When I have lunch by myself, I like to order a half bottle of wine. When my parents were drinking wine for lunch, they would share a half bottle and there would be some left over. So, to the story of my parents, the Champagne at breakfast is not more than an ounce or two max. The elevenses Madeira wouldn’t have been more than about an ounce. The Bloody Mary before lunch wasn’t more than an ounce of gin [never vodka] and the two glasses of wine at lunch may have been two to two ounces each, or if only one wine, not more than about 4 ounces. And it goes on. Of course, he was never drinking 15% alc wines either. Chances are that they were not more than 13%. Another fact I throw out in wine tastings is that two 4 ounce glasses of 12.5% wine, in many countries, you are under the drink drive limit, whereas 2 4oz glasses at 14.5% you are over the drink drive limit.

    So, it is very interesting to read this study about wine glass sizes. It makes sense that the size of servings of wine have increased when the size of the glass has grown so much. I look at the old Victorian wine glasses which I inherited from my grandmother and they are, frankly, too small for a wine serving of today’s standards, even when pouring a modest sized wine serving.

    The fact is, my parents did, and my father still does, drink this routine every day. However, I have never seen my parents drunk. They might have had too much to drink on occasion when they went out to big functions but never enough that they were unable to drive. Though, as a precaution, my father made my mother sit in the back seat and he put on a chauffeur’s hat just in case the police took interest in his driving, they wouldn’t think to stop a lady’s chauffeur! At age 90, my father has stopped driving but continues healthily drinking!

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