A Much Better Article is the Old Fashioned Loaf : Bread and Crisis in Britain's Country, City, and Empire, 1870-1914

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A Much Better Article is the Old Fashioned Loaf : Bread and Crisis in Britain's Country, City, and Empire, 1870-1914
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  David Fouser ASEH, March 2014 San Francisco, California ―A Much Better Article is the Old - Fashioned Loaf: Bread and Crisis in Britain‘s Country, City, and Empire, 1870-1914  NOTE: This version is a conference paper read at the American Society for Environmental History‘s 2014 annual meeting in San Francisco, California. It is not  prepared for print publication, and copy editing and citations may be incomplete. For fuller citations or more information, please contact me at dfouser@uci.edu. I. Introduction In 1846, the United Kingdom removed duties on imported grain, and adopted Free Trade as both policy and ideology. That year, the country produced more than three-quarters of its wheat. By 1914, it produced less than one-fifth. This fundamental change in the relationships between Britons and environments was made possible by the worldwide expansion of both wheat agriculture and fossil fuel transportation. Fields in the United States, Russia, eastern Europe, India, Canada, Australia, and Argentina  became the sources of Britons‘  daily bread. 1  Although wheat was not the first global 1  B. R. Mitchell,  British Historical Statistics  (Cambridge , U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Giovanni Federico,  Feeding the World: An Economic History of  Agriculture, 1800-2000  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Paul Pickering, The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti -Corn Law League  (London: Leicester Univ. Press, 2000).  commodity, this was the first time that the cultural and caloric foundation of a nation‘s diet was supplied from abroad. 2  A majority urban nation after 1851, most Britons experienced this transformation of environmental relationships through white bread, which became the near-universal article of consumption. White bread also became an object of new cultural and political significance, and it provides a lens through which to examine the intertwined environmental relationships between Brita in‘s county, city, and empire, a set of connections largely unrecognized in the scholarship of food, environment, and empire in modern Britain. 3  II. The Global White Loaf In the local food supply chain that existed in medieval and early modern Britain, ― white ‖  bread was for the wealthy, and ―brown‖ bread was for the poor  . 4  Feudal 2  An obvious comparison is sugar; see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History  (New York: Viking, 1985). 3  In the substantial bodies of literature dealing with the food, environment, and empire, there are many fine works dealing with the intersections of two of these themes, but none that tie together all three. See, for example, Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors  (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006); for the best recent survey of British food history, see Derek Oddy,  From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British  Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s  (Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell Press, 2003); a very useful account of British environmental history that illustrates the need to consider Britain‘s "environment outside the archipelago, see James Winter, Secure from Rash  Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment   (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). 4   Although there were technical differences between ―brown,‖ ―black,‖ ―household,‖ and ―whole meal‖ bread, for the purposes of this paper, I will refer to bread in the three main categories d eployed by Britons in the late nineteenth century: ―white‖ bread was loaves of two or four pounds made from flour from which as much as possible of the bran and germ had been removed, along with water, yeast, and salt; ―brown‖ bread was similar loaves of any flour that included a significant proportion of bran or germ, whether whole- meal or of white flour with germ added after; and ―fancy‖ breads included any  regulations on milling and baking ensured that white bread was more expensive, but the social relations articulated in those regulations also reflected environmental constraints. 5   Britain‘s cool and damp climate produced wheat that was soft and ―weak,‖ or relatively low in gluten, the protein that allows wheaten bread to rise and form a porous structure. It was well regarded for its flavor, but lacked the amount of gluten necessary to rise into truly light, porous loaves. Further, the stone mills used throughout the country produced limited proportions of fine white flour, usually about 25% of the wheat. Another 50% of the wheat was darker, ―seconds‖ flour, and the remainder offal . 6  Before the dominance of imported wheat in the 1870 s, Britain‘s bread was therefore predominantly brown in color and dense in texture. 7  The global food supply chain that developed after 1846, and particularly after 1875, made possible white bread for all. Wheats imported from warmer and drier climates such as the American Midwest were ―strong,‖ relatively high in gluten, and thus well-suited to bread-baking. They were also harder and drier, and did not grind well on  particularly fine forms of bread, typically with additional ingredients such as milk, eggs, sugar, or butter. 5   E. P. Thompson, ―The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,‖  Past & Present  , no. 50 (February 1971): 76  –  136; Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, ―The Assize of Bread,‖ The Economic Journal   14, no. 54 (June 1, 1904): 196  –  218. 6   ―History of the Decortication of Wheat,‖ The Miller  , October 2, 1876. 7  For the strength of English-grown flour varieties, see John Kirkland, The Modern  Baker, Confectioner, and Caterer: A Practical and Scientific Work Forthe Baking and  Allied Trades , vol. I (London: Gresham, 1913); for the prevalence of brown bread until the late nineteenth century, see Michael Nelson, ―Social -Class Trends in British Diet, 1860- 1900,‖ in  Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present  , ed. Catherine Geissler and Derek J. Oddy (Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University Press, 1993); and for an overview of bread in Britain before the globalization of wheat supplies, see Christian Petersen,  Bread and the British Economy, c. 1770-1870 , ed. Andrew Jenkins (Aldershot, Hants., England: Scolar Press, 1995).  stones. 8  The characteristics of imported wheat prompted British millers to adopt steel rollers in the 1870s, and by the 1880s they were rapidly displacing the now-obsolete millstones. 9  Rollers had the additional advantage that they could more easily remove the  bran and germ from wheat, and thereby extract a higher proportion of white flour. In contrast to the 25% possible with stones, rollers could produce a ―short patent‖ of 35-40% extremely white flour, or a ―long patent‖ of 50 -60% fairly white flour, along with smaller amounts of lower grades. 10  The combination, then, of foreign wheat supplies and roller milling entailed a proliferation of white bread by the 1880s. 11  Indeed, one baker noted, once roller milled wheat and foreign flour made white bread the universal standard, brown bread began to sell at fancy prices. 12  III. Winners and Losers in White Bread Britons‘ new relationships to environments around the world had important effects on their relationships to environments at home. Imported wheat  —  and therefore whiter bread  —  resulted in decades of agricultural depression and broad shifts in Brita in‘s  landscapes. After bad weather led to a series of poor harvests in the late 1870s, imports overtook home production and wheat prices fell almost continuously for the next 25 years. The led to a contraction in arable agriculture in Britain that lasted in broad strokes 8   ―Scientific and Practical Milling, No. IV,‖ The Miller  , February 12, 1876; Kirkland, The  Modern Baker  . 9  Richard Bennett and John Elton,  History of Corn Milling  , vol. III, Feudal Laws and Customs, IV vols. (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1900). 10  Kirkland, The Modern Baker  ; Glyn Jones, The Millers: A Story of Technological  Endeavour and Industrial Success, 1870-2001  (Lancaster, UK: Carnegie Publishing, 2001). 11    Nelson, ―Social -Class Trends in British Diet, 1860- 1900.‖   12  From The Miller  , c. 1885.  until 1939, interrupted only by the First World War. Although many farmers adapted successfully to their new position in a global food supply system, the trend across the country was that l andlords‘ rents fell , tenant farmers‘ profits evap orated, and rural laborers found themselves out of work. In many areas, particularly on the heavy clay soil of the southeast that was productive but expensive to cultivate, once-productive fields turned to grass. In extreme cases, rural depopulation resulted as laboring families moved to the cities in search of their daily bread  —  now white bread, made from foreign wheat. 13  If agriculture in Britain had been ―sacrificed on the Altar of Free Trade,‖ as critics charged, the beneficiaries of that sacrifice were the cities. To many Britons, the globalization of their wheat supply and the proliferation of white bread seemed perfectly natural, particularly to millers and bakers. 14  An 1876 passage from the trade journal The  Miller   explained that ―South Australia, Cali fornia, even Chili [sic]  —  to say nothing of Pomerania, Wallachia, and the Delta of the Nile, are home counties, and their crops are as inevitably tribute to us those grown on the Bedford Level or the Vale of Evesham.‖ In Britain, he continued, ―foreign whea t supplies an excellent gauge of the world‘s weather and crops… brought to a common centre by the quickest and cheapest route… the consequences of Nature having her own way and not being fettered by tariffs. ‖ 15  The medical profession also saw the new global food supply chain as natural and unproblematic, and the nutritional sciences developed in the mid-nineteenth century 13  Alun Howkins,  Reshaping Rural England: A Social History, 1850-1925  (London: Harper Collins Academic, 1991); Joan Thirsk, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 14  This argument was first presented in a conference paper in 2012. See David Fouser, ―Wheat, Flour, Bread: The British Food Chain, 1846 - 1939‖ (presented at the American Society for Environmental History, Madison, Wis., 2012). 15   ―Free Trade in Corn,‖ The Miller  , May 1, 1876.
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