Food and Drink Living gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Living in 1901
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Daily Bread

Staple foods
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.

'Eurissa' bread advertising poster - link to an enlarged version

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 content).

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 per pound).

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 in children.

Mother's Crushed Oats cereal packet - link to an enlarged version

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.