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Food in 1914 and now. Who is better off?

Food in 1914 and now. Who is better off?

Convenience food, high-tech refrigeration, year round imports – the food available in the UK reduces the effort we need to make, and gives us a huge choice. Yet we are fatter than ever before. Can we learn any lessons from a century ago?

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and the beginning of four years of commemorations. As well as paying our respects to all those who fought, and learning about the history and causes of the conflict, it is interesting to find out more about everyday life one hundred years ago.

Our technology, communication and housing arrangements have changed hugely in one hundred years, but what about our food? Many of the everyday foods eaten at the start of the twentieth century would still be completely recognisable to us. The process of ‘canning’ or ‘tinning’ food for preservation had long been perfected by the start of the twentieth century, and so the pantry shelves of 1914 would have contained many familiar items.  Although tinned food was too pricey for many poor people, by 1914 the UK was the largest importer of tinned food in the world. As a result consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables had declined. Baked beans, tinned fish and tinned fruit were all popular, and jams and marmalades were just as they are today. Sweets and cakes were always a treat, whether home-made or bought from the big jars at the shop.

White bread and tea had been luxuries half a century early, but by the early 1900s they had become staples for poorer families. Brown and wholemeal bread were more expensive (just as they are today), and home baking was starting to fall out of fashion as bakeries became more common. Pasta was only known as macaroni, usually served as macaroni cheese. Most people would get the bulk of their carbohydrates from potatoes and vegetables. Food was expensive by our standards, and malnutrition was common among poorer families. The census of 1911 recorded child deaths in a family as well as those still living, and behind the numbers lie many sad stories of children lost to disease or starvation.

Eating out was generally a treat for the rich, with elaborate many-course meals available at smart hotels. For those with less cash, there was always fish and chips - just as popular then as now, and wrapping in newspaper never seemed to cause any harm! Cheap meals were also available at tea-shops and cafes.

What about special diets? Vegetarianism was regarded as something of a fad in the early years of the 20th century. A good hostess was required to be able to serve a vegetarian meal, although this was deemed to include fish and eggs - the definition of ‘vegetarian’ was not how we understand it today. Choice in diet and restricted eating was an option only for the rich, as all too many people were more concerned in simply getting sufficient to eat.

The main culinary difference between us and our Edwardian forebears was in the amount of effort required to prepare food, and in the storage facilities available.  Recipes from the time seem incredibly complex to modern eyes, using cuts or types of meat that are unfamiliar now, and with lengthy preparation times. Cooking the evening meal would usually start in the morning, although with the army of domestic servants in many houses there was plenty of help on hand. A 1914 house would have needed a great deal of work to keep it clean, with no modern gadgets and open fires for heating, and of course dishwashers and microwaves were the stuff of pure fantasy.

With no refrigerator or freezer, perishable items had to be bought as needed. This added a further load to the house wife – but fortunately there were delivery services that we can only dream of, with twice-daily services for milk, bread and cheese.

Obesity was not unknown at the time, but far more people in the UK were affected by malnutrition.  High food prices and a very limited welfare safety net left many relying on workhouses or charity to avoid starvation.  Those in domestic service would be guaranteed their food, but they had to work hard for it. With all the physical labour involved in cleaning the house and looking after their employers, domestics worked very long hours and would burn off every calorie that they took in.

The start of the war left food supplies threatened, and there were shortages caused by panic-buying, queuing and food hoarding. Rationing was introduced in 1917 to combat this. The other major change was the virtual disappearance of servants. The men were sent to the fighting, while the women moved to the factories and to the jobs that had been vacated. Even after the Armistice, these new freedoms and opportunities meant that the heyday of domestic service was over.

A visitor from 1914 would marvel at all the labour saving devices in our houses, at the convenience food and ready meals and at the overwhelming choice in our supermarkets.  They would think how lucky we are that relative food prices are lower, and be shocked how much food is wasted. Perhaps the main lesson for us is to appreciate what we have.