I don’t like to cook. It means I have to wash dishes. (I don’t have a dishwasher, can you believe it?) But I do like to eat, so I eat things that are convenient and easy to make.
If I had the nerve to announce this to the average Victorian woman, she would probably clock me with her good frying pan. Or maybe the broke-in-half plate she used to mash potatoes.
My curiosity for the past constantly reminds me what a spoiled twenty-first century gal I am.
WORKING CLASS IN THE VICTORIAN ERA…
…it wasn’t easy.
What’s the visual that first comes to mind when you hear the word “Victorian?” Maybe a big ornate, colorful house? Fancy bustled dresses? Those things aren’t wrong, but they don’t represent everyone, and they don’t tell the full story.
If you were a member of the Victorian working class, an urban laborer, you were walking around in a state of constant hunger and malnutrition.
Families struggled, and the best of the food the family could afford went to the wage-earner, the man.
A typical breakfast consisted of bread or porridge, and to drink, tea or beer. You were lucky if you had beer since it provided the nutrients and calories your food was lacking. Even so it was replaced during the Temperance Movement with coffee, cocoa and of course, the already present tea.
This seems like the equivalent of grabbing a bagel and coffee at Dunkin Donuts. It’s not though, when you consider we will likely follow that up with more nutritious meals later in the day.
But, it’s the same premise of “grabbing a quick bite,” though for slightly different reasons…
FIRING UP THE RANGE
Most urban homes used coal in their kitchen ranges, of which there were two types. The open range allowed for cooking on the open flame if desired. The closed range allowed for faster oven heating, but was more complicated to use and maintain.
Speaking of maintenance, check out what you had to do each day before using the range:
- Rake out the cold ashes from the day before.
- Brush down the entire stove with a stiff brush to remove bits of food, ash or soot.
- Wipe the whole range down with greasy graphite goo. Don’t skip this step, called black-leading, as it prevents excessive soiling of pots and pans, aprons and clothing—and we know what a process laundry was!
- Lay and light the fire.
Great. Time to cook. Except I now need a nap.
And wait…it’s going to take 45 minutes for it to get hot enough to boil water, and almost two hours for the range to achieve full cooking heat. And that’s why you had to go through this process every day; just a small amount of soot in the works would affect the efficiency of the stove. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
BREAKFAST FOR THE BETTER-OFF
If you earned considerably more than a laborer, but weren’t yet middle class, say something like a railway worker, you ate better. Eggs, sausage and cake were on your breakfast plate. But the women and children still ate less, probably foregoing the meat.
The middle classes often employed a maid or cook to help out, so they enjoyed heartier portions and a larger menu: eggs and breakfast meat of some sort, but throw in some smoked fish, marmalade, and double up on the gluten with toast and rolls. Still, the breads were baked the previous afternoon since the oven wouldn’t be hot enough for baking in the morning.
BREAKFAST FOR THE WELL-OFF
If you had a staff at your disposal, you would eat quite well from a startling array of meat and seafood (don’t forget the caviar), plus the expected eggs, breads and jams. A spread of this magnitude required that the family eat at a later hour than that of the lower classes…and why not? There wasn’t a clock to punch, so they might as well sleep in!
HUNGER WAS A WAY OF LIFE
While the few were feasting, the masses were mostly starving. Fortunately few of us living in the modern Western world know true hunger: bloat, nausea and pain, stunted growth and illness. Documents show that twelve year-old boys in boarding school were on average four inches taller than their counterparts on the streets of London’s East End. And comparing adults from the era to modern adults, we are on average about 3 inches taller.
AND HERE’S THE KICKER…
While the well-to-do had access to plenty of food, they often deprived their children. Why?…on moral grounds. They believed they were building better people by forcing self-control and self-denial through small meals. And girls were fed even less than boys. Women are by nature wicked and need to learn to control their “appetites,” right? Don’t get me started…that’s another post!
And children were fed carb-heavy diets consisting of a variety of puddings, bread and jam and only the occasional meat or fish. They rarely had what graced their parent’s plates. This put them almost at the nutritional level of the lower classes – shocking!
CIRCUMSTANCES ARE EVERYTHING
This comparison reflects differences in the urban hierarchy, specifically in London, England, but I imagine it would be similar in New York City at that time as well.
Rural living could help or hurt, depending on where you were. In the South of England, you were barely surviving. Living in rural America, you might better off—if you grow your own food and are doing well with it, it stands to reason you would eat well. Dairy, meat, bread, seasonal veggies and dried fruit would be on the breakfast menu. Conversely, Southern sharecroppers were on a subsistence diet of fat pork, corn bread or corn pone, and molasses. This sounds a bit better than the urban “hunk of bread then scrounge for the other meals” scenario, but still pretty awful.
Once again my History Fix has put me in my place! I’m lucky to have a variety of good food available to me, and not even counting the microwave, easy means to prepare it. Even if I do have to wash the dishes by hand! Share your thoughts—and if you know what fat pork is, please do tell—in the comments below!
Goodman, Ruth 2013. How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. New York, NY. Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Schlereth, Thomas J. 1991. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915. New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers.