Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street, has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character and Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt. He has graciously sent in an article about food preparation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The content will astonish you. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!
Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart–a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard.”
So says the ever-cautious, Mr Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s Emma as he entertains his guests at supper. Yet Mr Woodhouse’s fears were not entirely in his imagination. At the time it was relatively common for commercially bought pickles and preserves to contain poisonous sulphate of copper to improve their eye-appeal. And even when prepared at home, the copper pans in which they were cooked, unless properly looked after, could also poison the ingredients.
Yet for most people who lived in the country, as Jane Austen did for much of her life, food-safety was not a major concern. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or by their domestic staff, and cooking and baking was done at home.
The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally, and word travels quickly in small communities. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold.
The situation though, was very different in towns and cities. Here it was the shopkeepers and “costermongers” who sourced, stored, prepared and supplied the produce. And with a wider market at their disposal these tradesmen were often less concerned with quality, as they were with cost. The worst affected were the poor. For the most part they lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.” Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities.
Bread itself could be bought as quarter or half loaves and the poor subsisted largely on bread. But even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.
The wealthier residents in towns and cities could afford a “better” diet, yet this too carried its own dangers. There was of course no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene. In towns and cities most meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerably disease. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the British population grew, and so did the towns and cities. The nation became more dependent on imported and processed foods. The growing “middle classes” were acquiring a growing taste for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. The problem that the fictional Mr Woodhouse had been concerned about a few years earlier rapidly became a fact of life as the century progressed.
The “adulteration” of food and drink became increasingly commonplace. Producers, importers, merchants and sellers were all adding ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance. The making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process. As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, Avon Street,
Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”
Milk too, was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%. So common did the adulteration of food become that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,
In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”
In 1851 The Lancet, medical journal, commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods. The study revealed that China tea contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel (root vegetable) sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”
Even after the study was published the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. It was not until 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed. Thankfully, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. And though the Adulteration Act was still largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food gradually improved, which I am sure would have pleased the fictional Mr Woodhouse.
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