18th Century Self Sufficiency Manual


This only image in The Country Housewife's Family Companion.

This only image in The Country Housewife’s Family Companion.

I have just bought a copy of The County Housewife’s Family Companion by William Ellis (d.1758).  It was first published in 1750 and the wonderful Prospect Books have reprinted it.  The book includes recipes of the everyday foods eaten in rural England but it is more like a farmers’ survival guide than a cookery book.

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion covers a wide range of topics and reveals the sheer hard work needed to maintain a small farm and to feed everyone involved.  It covers the expected housewifery skills, such as baking and butter making, and then some.  For example, it explains the best way to grind wheat and how to feed the extra workers who come to get the harvest in (beef, bacon, picked pork, beans, puddings, pies, cheese, beer and ale).  It includes a vivid description of how to caponize cocks “…with a very sharp knife…” (pp. 216-217) as well as medical advice and remedies.  The description of how to prepare guts for sausage casings is a particularly telling example of the time consuming work needed to prepare food in a pre-industrial era.

“ Take the fresh guts of a sheep, and cut them into fathom or six foot long pieces; one parcel of guts will cut into six or eight such pieces; stroke the dung out, and put them into water just to wet them, turn them inside out, by the help of a stick, wash them, and scrape a pieces at a time as it likes on a table, with the back of a knife drawn along the inside skin thus turned outwards, and it will come off in two or three times scraping, and without breaking the gut, if it be rightly done; and in the same manner, the outward skin with scraping will come off at the end of the gut; then there will only remain the middle skin, that will appear about the bigness of a wheat straw.  And when all the pieces of the guts are thus scraped, cleaned, and prepared, put them into water made just lukewarm, for if it is too hot, they are all spoiled.  Now in this lukewarm water the guts must be washed clean; then put them into a glazed earthenware pot, with salt enough strewed over them, and they will keep sweet as long as you please.  And that the skins may appear truly fine and clear, put one end to your mouth and blow it, and then you may easily perceive whether the gut is entirely free of all outward skin or fur; for if it is nor, it must be presently taken off.”  (pp. 132-13)

William Ellis started farming in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire around 1717.  Before that he spent time working as a brewer and as an excise man.  The books that he wrote were popular and he earned his money from writing rather than from farming.

William Ellis’s book paints a picture of life just before the Agricultural Revolution transformed Britain.  I thought he was going to be the hero of this blog post but perhaps the real heroes and heroines were the army of individuals who worked incredibly hard to scrape a living and feed their families during the 18th century.

Red Herrings, Bloaters and Kippers


Red herrings, bloaters and kippers all begin life as herrings but are transformed by being cured in different ways.  Before electrical refrigeration curing fish by salting and smoking was an important method of preservation.

Of the three red herrings have the strongest taste.  They are made by soaking whole herrings in brine for up to three weeks and then smoking them for another two or three weeks.   This turns the flesh red.   Red herrings have been made for centuries.  In 1567 Thomas Nash wrote Lenten Stuffe, or the Praise of the Red Herring, in which he praises their keeping qualities and their ubiquity,

“… it is most precious fish-merchandise, because it can be carried through all Europe.  No where are they so well cured as at Yarmouth.  The poorer sort make it three parts of their sustenance.  It is every man’s money from the king to the peasant.”

These strongly flavoured fish have fallen out of favour but they live on in the phrase “red herring”, i.e. a misleading and irrelevant distraction.

Bloaters are a lot like red herrings in that they are not gutted or split before being cured, but bloaters are only lightly salted and lightly smoked.  The cure for bloaters is considerably quicker than for red herrings.  This produces a mild tasting soft fish which does not keep for very long.  Bloater paste, a Victorian tea time treat, was a way of extending the shelf life of bloaters.

Kipper workers in Craster, Northumberland. Photo from http://wecanmindthetime.org.uk.

John Woodger is credited with inventing the kipper in Northumberland during the 1840s.  His innovation was to split the herring along its back (not along the belly) and remove the guts.  Once this is done the herring is soaked in brine for 20-30 minutes and then smoked for 12-20 hours.  Regional variations mean that there are lots of different types of kipper.To summarise,

  • Red herrings – an old cure for whole herring that produces salty and highly smoked fish.  A good keeper.
  • Boaters – lightly salted and lightly smoked whole herrings.  Mild tasting.
  • Kippers – a 19th century innovation.  The fish are split, gutted and smoked.

Artificial Refrigeration


It is very easy to take fridges and freezers for granted but before the 1970s most British homes had neither.  People have used natural ice to cool food for centuries, which was fine when it was available.  An important breakthrough was the development of machines that could make ice artificially.  After a lot of experimentation these machines began to be used in industry in the mid-19th century.  I want to look at two of the many people who contributed to refrigeration technology.

James Harrison who set up the ice-making industry in Australia.

James Harrison (1816-1893) was a Scot who went to Australia to set up a printing press.  Apparently, while he was using ether to clean the blocks of type he noticed that the metal became cold.  He must have had an inventive mind because in the 1850s he filed patents for an ice-making machine and an ether vapor-compression refrigeration system.  Vapor-compression systems work because a refrigerant (in this case ether) is circulated around a series of pipes absorbing heat and then releasing that heat elsewhere.

His invention kick started the ice-making  business but more work was needed before domestic refrigerators became common.  It wasn’t just the unreliable and potentially dangerous nature of the early machines.  The lack of electrical wiring in British homes was a major obstacle. The USA was a bit more advanced in this respect, which is where Mary Engle Pennington(1872–1952) lived.

Dr. Mary Engle Pennington.

Mary worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducted research on refrigeration.  Not only did she do the research she also explained it to the public, publishing booklets about the correct storage of perishable foods and, in 1923, founding the Household Refrigeration Bureau, which promoted the safe use of domestic refrigeration. Later in her career she was involved in the design and construction of domestic refrigerators and refrigerated warehouses.

Back in Britain electrical fridges were pretty rare until later in the 20th century. As people gradually replaced larders, cellars and ice-boxes with consistently cold humming white boxes it changed not only how we stored food but also how we shop and what we eat.

Cleaning up the Milk Supply


Last week’s protest by British dairy farmers, and their threat to disrupt supplies during the Olympic Games, made me think about milk.   Specifically about how accustomed we are to having clean milk available all year round.  In Britain we might worry that too much double cream is unhealthy but we can assume that milk, and other dairy products, are safe.

Franz Ritter von Soxhlet, the German chemist who developed pasteurization in the late 19th century.

During the 18th and 19th century milk could be a source of illness.   Leaving aside adulteration, the way milk was produced and transported allowed harmful micro-organisms to multiply.  Milk cows were often kept in overcrowded conditions, equipment was not always cleaned properly and the lack of refrigeration made things worse.   Tuberculosis was one of the diseases that could be spread by contaminated milk but the lack of certainty about how the disease spread meant there was plenty of room for disagreement.  Some argued that the milk supply could be cleaned up by good hygiene practices alone.  Others argued that pasteurization of milk was absolutely essential.  There were even voices suggesting that the best solution would be for the government to take over milk production as in this 1899 Fabian Society leaflet.

Of all the people who helped clean up the milk supply the Medical Officers of Health deserve a special mention.  These government officials, who began to be appointed from the mid-19th century, gathered evidence on a range of public health matters including the milk supply.  They inspected milking parlours, visited dairies, tracked the spread of disease and reported on the cause of deaths in their area.   All of which helped to persuade others of the need for improvements.  Some changes were slow to come.  Franz Ritter von Soxhlet (1848-1926) proposed a way destroying the harmful bugs in milk by heating it, i.e. pasteurization in 1886 but British diary farmers resisted compulsory pasteurization.  It wasn’t until 1949 that it became standard practice across the UK. 

This book by Hannah Velten provides more information about the history of milk.

Tin Can Pioneers


Bryan Donkin. The creative brain behind the first tin can factory.

The history of tinned food begins around 200 years ago.  The discovery that food could be preserved in airtight containers is normally credited to the French confectioner, Nicolas-François Appert (1749-1841).  He wrote a book about his experiments L’Art de Conserver Pendant Plusieur Années Toute les Substances Animales et Végétales  (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years) and, in January 1810, he won 12,000 Francs for his invention.   A scientific understanding of bacteria didn’t come until the mid-19th century so Monsieur Appert’s method was based on knowledge of traditional preservation techniques and careful observation.  Despite his cleverness, I think that, the real heroes of tinned food were the people who developed his idea.

First there was Peter Durand who suggested metal instead of Appert’s glass jars.  He filed a patent for his tins in August 1810.  Next there was Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) who, with two partners, John Hall and Mr. Gamble, acquired this British patent.   In 1813 the firm Donkin, Hall and Gamble set up the world’s first tin can factory in Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London.  The tins they made were large, heavy and sealed by hand soldering.   There is a photo of one of their tins here.  During the 19th century the process of making tin cans was mechanised and later automated.  These changes meant that tinned food moved from being something bought only by polar explorers and the armed forces and became an everyday domestic staple.

An early tin can factory, possibly Donkin, Hall & Gamble. Image from http://www.colinslater.co.uk

Rather bizarrely the tin opener did not appear until 1855 when Robert Yates, a cutler and surgical instrument maker based in Middlesex and my final tin can hero, made a lever or claw tin opener.  Before then tins were often opened with a hammer and chisel.

Flash Freezing


This American food hero has had a significant impact on British shopping and eating habits but only since the 1950s when domestic freezers became more common.

Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) was born New York and studied biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  For this story what is important is that between 1912 and 1916 he was working in Labrador, Newfoundland, a place at the top Eastern edge of Canada which gets extremely cold.His field journals from this period are held in the archives of Amherst College and reveal how he learnt about freezing food.  In Newfoundland he saw how the Inuit used the freezing conditions to preserve fresh fish and meat.  The arctic cold meant that things froze extremely fast and he concluded that it was the rapid freezing that meant the food tasted good months later.   Clarence thought he could make money out of this knowledge.

In the early 1920s he began experimenting with frozen fish.  At this time there were plenty of other people working on freezing technology but two things made Clarence’s efforts stand out.  First he developed a machine that could freeze food quickly, which gave the ice-crystals less time to grow and meant that the food was in better condition when it was defrosted.  Second, he packaged the frozen food into small waxed boxes, which were attractive to buyers.  This boosted the commercial success of Clarence’s frozen foods.  In 1929 he sold his firm and his patents, to organisations which later became the General Foods Corporation.  He continued to be involved, as a corporate executive until the late 1930s and his name lives on in the company brand.