Bread has been described as
the first, and most important, 'convenience food'. In the
early 18th century, white bread and tea were luxuries
for the better off. In the 19th century, however,
they became part of the staple diet of the poor.
What sort of bread was eaten?
By 1901, even in rural areas, home-baked brown bread
- as seen in nostalgic television advertising - was being
replaced by bakery bread that was cheap, convenient and might
be available on credit. Less coarse, it was easier to digest
without expensive butter, cheese or jam. New technology led
to larger-scale production and more uniform, better quality
bread; to 'improve' the whiteness of its appearance, bran
and wheat germ were removed (which lowered the nutritional
Tea, like bread, was consumed by the poor with most meals.
It was used to make even a cold meal seem like a hot one,
and tea leaves would be re-used several times. Poorer families
might buy half a pound or less a week (at a cost of 1s 6d
Supplying and preserving
The global food trade of the 21st century
is nothing new. In his history of diet in England, Plenty
and Want, John Burnett comments that 'by 1914 the world
food market was so organised as to place the cheapest wheat
and meat, the best fish, tea and coffee on English tables'.
This dependence on foreign imports left the country dangerously
exposed during the First World War, but in 1901 it gave British
consumers - or at least those who could afford it - access
to an unprecedented range of foodstuffs.
Tea was a spectacular example of a colonial cash crop, developed
within the British empire for the home market. Before 1870,
over 90% of Britain's tea had been imported from China. By
1900, China supplied only 10%, with 50% coming from India
and 36% from Ceylon.
Tinned foods, including salmon, peaches, pears and pineapples,
became common from the 1880s, and by 1914 Britain was the
world's largest importer of tinned goods. Well-known brand
names such as Crosse & Blackwell and H.J. Heinz were established
in the 19th century.
For the poorest in the early 20th century, tinned foods were
still comparatively expensive, so much so that many poorer
families did not even own a tin-opener. Use of tinned condensed
milk by the poorest probably contributed to high levels of
infant mortality. Shopkeepers sometimes opened tins for customers
and this could attract disease-carrying flies. The milk itself
was made from evaporated skimmed milk, which lacked the vitamins
A and D or fats that in ordinary milk could help prevent rickets
By the 1930s, most kinds of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish
were available in tins and at prices that many could afford,
at least as an occasional treat.