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Public concern with food quality is nothing new, as Liz Calvert Smith finds out…


Dining was a very risky business in the nineteenth century, you could never be quite sure exactly what you were eating.  Of course, the adulteration of food was nothing new; it had probably existed in some form or another as long as people had sold or bartered food.  In fourteenth century London, for example, people were fined for selling, amongst other things, stale fish, stinking pig meat and wooden nutmegs. There were laws to deal with deception, but any admixtures were difficult to detect before scientific testing, which only became possible some five hundred years later. Medieval testing was along the lines of sprinkling powdered unicorn’s horn into wine to test for poison; if present, it would change the colour.

The scale of the problem increased dramatically in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the rapid growth of the towns.  Supplying enough food to meet the demand was a problem, so the obvious answer to many traders was to cheat.  Bulk was added to basic foodstuffs, with inferior substances: mustard powder was mixed with wheat flour and turmeric, cheese was coloured with red lead, coffee was found to contain burnt beans, burnt sugar, acorns and mangel-wurzel.  Flour, perhaps the most important staple, was adulterated with plaster of Paris, pipeclay and even ground up bones.  It was claimed in an anonymous pamphlet of 1757 that:

“The charnel houses of the dead are raked to give filthiness to the food of the living.”

This was never proved with certainty.  What was well known, and accepted by some, was the use of mineral salt called alum to whiten the bread and improve the volume.  Alum is an astringent, and whilst not especially harmful, it caused serious digestive problems in those whose diet consisted of very little other than bread.

The public was first alerted to the state of their food by the German-born Frederick Accum, a chemist in London, whose work, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons caused a storm when it was first published in 1820.  It sold out in a month and ran through four editions in two years.  Accum took the bold step of naming those who had defrauded their customers and was eventually hounded out of the country by the enemies he created. It was to be another fifty years before effective legislation was introduced, meanwhile, people were made aware of the dangers they faced from their apparently innocuous shopping.  Household and cookery books gave details of how to look for unwanted additives in food.  Bread could be tested for alum by sticking a hot knife into a one-day-old loaf; if the mineral was present, particles of it would stick to the blade and it would smell “peculiar”.  Bread could also be tested for the presence of chalk by simmering a slice for two or three hours in water, leaving it to settle, and then checking to see if there were any whitish deposits in the water.  There were dangers everywhere and traders went to very elaborate lengths to sell food which was “past its sell-by date”.  Sides of beef, amazingly, sometimes had new fat put on them which was polished with cloths to make it look fresh.  Poor quality wine may have been mixed with sugar or lead to improve its character; the test for this was long and complicated.  Dr Paris’s method was as follows:

“Expose equal parts of sulphur and powdered oyster shells to a white heat for fifteen minutes and when cold add an equal quantity of cream of tartar.  These are to be put into a strong bottle with common water to boil for an hour, and the solution is to be decanted afterwards into one ounce phials, adding twenty drops of muriatic (hydrochloric) acid to each.  This liquid will precipitate the least quantity of lead from wines in a very sensible black precipitate”

The housewife obviously had to add chemistry to her already long list of skills.  One imagines that by the time she had finished testing and found most results positive, she had probably lost her appetite anyway.

One source calculated that two-thirds of all foodstuffs sold in the mid-nineteenth century were adulterated in some way.  Henry Mayhew quotes a leading grocer in his major work, London Labour & The London Poor,as saying that he could mention twenty shops in the city where one could be sure the coffee sold was adulterated.  He then cites this as:

“..convincing proof of the general dishonesty of grocers.”

Pies are really much too unpleasant to consider.  One pieman told Henry Mayhew that when he visited public houses to sell his wares:

“..people would often begin crying, ‘Mee-yow’ or “Bow-wow-wow’ at me, but there’s nothing of that kind now.  Meat, you see, is so cheap.”

People must have needed very suspicious natures to shop successfully.  For example, it would seem that fish was obviously fresh or stale, but tricks could be practised here too.  One Manchester chemist told how fish sellers would come into his shop and buy red lead to paint their unsold fishes’ gills to make them look fresh.  Others used pipes to inflate old, sunken cod fish.  According to the cook, Eliza Acton, one could tell when prawns and shrimps were fresh by:

“..the vivacity of their leaps.”

People went to extraordinary lengths to cheat.  Old oranges were boiled to “freshen” them up and dried coconuts were drilled, filled with water, and resealed with wax.  Tea was perhaps the greatest scandal of all.  Used leaves were dried, coloured with copper or black lead and resold, perhaps more than once.  Punch magazine imagined a tea-loving spinster who:

“..proud of the cheery loveliness of her fireplace, would acknowledge a spasm of horror could she know that the polish of their own stove and the bloom of her own black tea were of one and the same black lead.”

Perhaps the most surprising feature of all this is the immense scale on which adulteration was practised.  It was not until the Food & Drugs Act of 1872 that analysts were appointed throughout the country and food adulterers began to be prosecuted.


Suggestions for further reading

  • Frederick Accum’s pivotal work, A Treatise On Adulterations Of Food & Culinary Poisons, which caused such an outcry, he was hounded out of the country…

  •  Henry Mayhew’s London Labour & The London Poor Of 1851

First published in Period House magazine, under the title “What’s Your Poison?”, in the October 1996  issue. © Liz Calvert Smith