Victorians adulterated food had deadly consequences that many were completely unaware of – but many took the advice from Mrs. Beeton, a popular English journalist, editor and writer at the time
Kitchen staples like bread and milk may be deemed safe nowadays but this wasn’t always the case.
During the late 19th century, pantry must-haves such as bread and milk had become so popular that questionable techniques were devised to meet demand.
Cheap alternatives to substitute real ingredients became the norm and for many consumers there were deathly consequences.
In a YouTube video uploaded by Absolute History, these unsavoury ingredients – including chalk, iron sulphate and Plaster of Paris – are unearthed.
Historian Dr. Kate Williams said: “One thing the Victorians loved was profit, and the way to make profit was to use the cheapest ingredients and charge a high price for them.
“Adulteration became very popular throughout the Victorian period, adding weight and increasing profit margin.”
The new manufacturing process meant that it was now big business, depersonalising the food chain completely.
For the Victorians, buying processed food was seen as a positive, as it was time saving and meant they didn’t have to bake.
Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb said: “Bread was particularly susceptible to tampering, as many things could be disguised in it.”
Alum was one of the most popular choices, and was used as a whitener to be added to lower grades of flour.
Limpscomb explained: “Alum is an aluminium-based compound, often found today in detergent.
“But when hidden in bread, it often makes it appear whiter, and it contains water so the bread feels more substantial.”
Although doses were small, once they were combined in different parts of foods the toxicity levels really added up.
In the video we see three different loaves, one is completely natural, and two of them contain Plaster of Paris, alum and other undesirable ingredients.
Victorians always wanted the whitest bread to impress dinner guests, which is why they always chose the loaf containing the hidden toxic ingredients.
Chronic malnourishment and gastroenteritis became common, as a lot of bread was consumed on daily basis, even by children.
Food historian Dr. Annie Gray said: “For a three-year-old, you’d start off with constipation and irregular bowel movements.
“If you are a three-year-old in a workhouse with chronic diarrhoea, that would lead to death.”
Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb continued: “Another reason to use adulterated food was to make it seem more attractive and appealing.”
You might not fancy a cup of tea either, because they were filled with iron filings, dust, used tea leaves and black lead to make it look dark.
Sir Arthur Hill Hassall, a London based physician, identified the use of adulterated foods in over 2,500 products.
This led to the first waiver of legislation in 1868, despite the laws not being particularly strong or effective when they were first put in place.
For children during the time, the main source of calcium was milk. And that too had been adulterated after 20,000 samples were tested.
But this didn’t bother the Victorians, as many took the advice from Mrs. Beeton, a popular English journalist, editor and writer at the time.
Lipscomb said: “According to her 1888 addition of her book on household management, the principle constitute was borcaric acid.
“She concludes, ‘fortunately for the consumer, it is a harmless addition’.”
The acid prolonged the life of milk, and was also great at cleaning your bathroom.
If inhaled, it would cause irritation, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and could also affect the brain and liver.
Although many Victorians took Mrs. Beeton’s word, according Dr. Annie Gray, the consumption of milk, and all these other popular foods, sadly could result in death.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.