Alfred Bird’s Custard


Bird’s custard powder.

Cornflour based custard is now so common that, for many of us, it is more “real” than the version made with eggs. Alfred Bird (1811-1878) is the man we need to thank for it.

Alfred set up himself up as “experimental chemist” in 1837. I am not entirely sure what an experimental chemist was meant to do but Alfred’s investigations were influenced by his wife’s delicate digestion.  Mrs Elizabeth Bird was unable to eat eggs or bread made with yeast so Alfred came up with alternatives.  Initially his inventions were only used at home but he went on to manufacturer them on a commercial-scale.  Custard powder was popular from the start.  It was cheap, simple to make and tasted good. By the mid 1840s it was being sold throughout Britain.

Alfred embraced the new opportunities of industrial Britain, which helped his firm to grow.  He put a lot of energy into promoting his products, which is reflected in the company motto,

“Early to bed, early to rise, stick to your work, and advertise.”

Later two of his sons joined the firm and more products were developed, including blancmange powder in the early 1870s and jelly crystal powder in 1895.   The firm, Alfred Bird and Sons Ltd, was bought in 1947 by the General Food Corporation.  Today the Bird’s brand is part of Premier Foods and the old Bird’s factory in Gibb Street, Birmingham is now part of an arts and media quarter called the Custard Factory.

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Marmalade and Dundee Cake


Towards the end of the 18th century Janet Keiller (1757-1825?) founded a marmalade dynasty which also pioneered the Dundee cake.

Keiller’s stoneware pots have become quite collectable. Later ones were made of white glass. Image from http://www.thevintagewall.com.

The story goes that Janet’s husband brought a quantity of Seville oranges from a Spanish ship that was sheltering in Dundee harbour and she invented marmalade.  Like a lot of good stories it is partly true but has been somewhat embroidered.  Recipes for marmalades existed before Janet’s “invention”.  It would be more accurate to say that Janet, who ran a shop selling sweets and jams, adapted an existing recipe.  Her innovation was to include pieces of peel rather than pound the oranges into a pulp.  The invention story lived on as marketing hype.

Janet and her son James set up a small factory to make this new type of marmalade. When James died, 1839, the enterprise was taken over by his widow, Margaret, and their eldest son Alex.  Alex turned out to be a hard-headed businessman and the firm expanded under his guidance.  Alex’s younger brother William was sent to run a Keiller’s outpost in Guernsey, which helped the firm to reach markets beyond Scotland and gave them a tax break since, at the time, the Channel Island had no sugar duty.  In 1880 the company opened a factory on the north bank of the Thames, London close to Henry Tate’s sugar refinery.  Keiller’s products were exported all over the world.

There is another story that the Keiller’s were the first firm to produce Dundee cake on a commercial scale and they did so to keep the factory workers busy when Seville oranges were unavailable.  Recipes for this fruit cake decorated with blanched almonds came be found here.

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.

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.

A woman who invented a dishwasher


Josephine Cochrane. Image courtesy of Shelby County Historical Society.

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) was an American socialite who invented a dishwasher in 1886.  Her name is sometimes written Cochran but she added the “e” to make it sound better!

It wasn’t because she was fed-up of doing the washing-up, as a wealthy woman in the 19th century she had servants to do the work.  She was concerned that her fine china was getting bashed about and she wanted a machine that would clean the dishes carefully.   Josephine apparently said, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

In fact dishwashers had already been invented, a number appear in patent books before the 1880s, but these early models didn’t perform very well.   In Josephine’s dishwasher the crockery was held in wire compartments set onto a wheel inside a copper boiler.  A motor turned the contraption while hot soapy water was sprayed onto the dishes.  You can see some blueprints of her design on the MIT inventor of the week website.

To start with she sold it as a domestic appliance but there were few takers.   She didn’t give up and, in 1893, her dishwasher won a prize at the Chicago World Fair.   A few years later Josephine opened her own factory with the mechanic who had helped make the prototype (George Butters).  Her company was bought by the Hobart Manufacturing Company and later became part of the Kitchen Aid Company.

It took a long time for dishwashers to catch on in British kitchens.  Early models were expensive and most people, especially those with servants, considered it better to wash by hand.   Today 40% of British households have a dishwasher, which according to a recent Business Week article , is a lot less than other countries including Spain (49%), France (52%), Germany (77%) and the USA ( 78%).

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.

Developing stainless steel cutlery


Harry Brearley who developed stainless steel.

The reason that so many of us use stainless steel cutlery has a lot to do with Harry Brearley (1871-1948).

Before  stainless steel was introduced knives were normally made of carbon steel, while spoons and forks tended to be silver plated or, from the 1840s, made of electroplated nickel silver (EPNS).  Steel made better knives than silver  because it kept a sharp cutting edge but it had disadvantages.  It made some foods taste strange, which is why silver, or silver plated, knives were preferred for eating fish.  Also, steel rusts unless it is carefully cleaned and polished.

Harry was born in Sheffield.   His family was not wealthy and, at the age of 12, he started working in the same steelworks as his father.  He was later apprenticed as a laboratory assistant and, in 1895, when married Helen Theresa Crank he described himself as a metallurgical chemist.  His big discovery came in 1912.  While trying to find a way to stop gun barrels corroding Harry developed a alloy of chrome and steel.  He was not the first to realise that this kind of alloy did not rust but he recognised its commercial potential.  Harry argued with his employers about who owned the commercial rights to develop this “rustless steel”.  He claimed that he was entitled to at least half and the Frith Company disagreed.  He resigned in 1915 and went to work at Brown Bayley’s steelworks, also in Sheffield.

When stainless steel cutlery first appeared in the shops it was more expensive than silver plated cutlery.  By the 1950s it had become the norm doing away with the tedious job of polishing the knives and making fish knives redundant.