Plenty and Want: The Social History of English Diet

For the English upper and middle classes, writes John Burnett, the nineteenth century was a period of huge and ostentatious meals; but “only during the last twenty years has the population as a whole been economically able to achieve an adequate diet...”

Little or no serious attempt has ever been made to record and evaluate the changes in the supply of man’s basic needs since Britain became an urban, industrial society. Books on fashion, architecture and cookery have multiplied, but there is no social history of dress, of housing or of food which rises above the level of the chatty, anecdotal account of departed glories.1

This lack of professional histories of diet based on contemporary sources has given rise to a series of myths about the food of the past which are commonly believed at the present day. The one most widely held is that a century ago food was cheaper, more plentiful and more wholesome than either before or since—that even the Victorian working man was able to dine from sirloins of beef and saddles of mutton, washed down with pots of nourishing porter.

By contrast, the myth continues, two World Wars, rationing, shortages and high prices have compelled Englishmen to abandon their traditional foods, while modern processing methods have destroyed natural flavour and introduced undesirable chemicals.

Another legend, slightly more sophisticated and still accepted by some historians, supposes that a gradual deterioration occurred in standards of diet during the first half of the nineteenth century while Britain was undergoing rapid industrialization, culminating in the famine conditions of the “Hungry ’Forties.”

From this time onwards, it is assumed, standards began to improve for all sections of the population: 1850 was a turning-point that marked the end of general want and heralded the affluence of the mid-Victorian decades.

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