When Happy Hour Was “Green Hour” in Paris

When the clock struck five, 19th-century Parisians turned to absinthe

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Mary Evans Picture Library / Everett Collection

Absinthe was affectionately known to early imbibers as the “Green Fairy,” partly for its chlorophyll-derived color but also because of its reputation for inspiring lust and creativity. Long before two Swiss sisters made the world’s first batch, in the late 1700s, the herb from which absinthe came—wormwood—had been used to ease childbirth, alleviate rheumatism, and fumigate plague-ridden houses. By the 19th century, absinthe was so popular that five o’clock at Parisian cafés became known as l’heure verte, the green hour. “It seems when I drink you, I inhale the young forest’s soul,” wrote French poet Raoul Ponchon.

With decadence came disapprov
al, then demonization. Some doctors charged that “absintheurs” were succumbing to “absinthism,” a syndrome marked by seizures and hallucinations. French anti-alcohol groups worked with viticulturists to ban it. In Switzerland, the drink was blamed for inciting murder and outlawed. In the U.S., it was banned from 1912 until 2007. Contemporary research shows the real evils of absinthism were probably more banal than imagined: acute intoxication and alcoholism. Today absinthe is sold legally throughout Europe and North America. Swiss and EU producers, recognizing the seductive mystique of the drink, have even fought over ownership of the “absinthe” and “Green Fairy” labels. 

This article is a selection from our Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Atlas of Eating Issue

Every culture has its own cuisine, and every cuisine its own secret history. This special issue of Journeys provides an in-depth look at food and culinary culture around the globe, including in-depth stories and favorite recipes.