During the 19th century, more than 25% of society operated at or below the proper nourishment level, 15-20% earned barely enough to survive, and 10% were unable to sustain themselves with the essential requirement of healthy, wholesome food. Translation: while Queen Victoria routinely feasted upon suet puddings, savory roast beef, and delicious ice cream, the less fortunate contented themselves with eating scraps, rotten vegetables, and potato peelings. Such was the dietary divide between the rich and poor in the Victorian era.
Food AvailabilityThe Victorian era saw the advancements of the industrial revolution, such as new agricultural methods (which improved the quantity and quality of food) and the development of the railway system. This allowed a vast amount of food to be transported across the country, resulting in an increase in choice, with food of a higher quality for those that could afford it.
Unfortunately, food was costly within the Victorian period. Content and well cared for, the rich consumed an unfathomable amount (some diets included more than half a pound of bread daily) and at times wasted even more. In contrast, a middle class family could anticipate spending over half their salary on food, while a considerable percentage of the population faced unemployment or a meager income, surviving on bread, drippings, tea, scraps, etc. With limited currency for food, certain luxuries were substituted by more affordable versions. For example, before low-cost margarine was offered, dripping (animal fat) was utilized as a popular imitation.
Regardless of class standing, the lack of refrigeration was a burden shared by all in the Victorian period. Because long-term storage was not readily available, food was usually bought from local producers such as the butcher or grocer, or from nearby street markets, and then consumed within a small period of time. Depending upon how obtainable they were, specific foods were especially favored, such as bread, pork, rice, oatmeal, cheese, beef, milk (despite the fear of it being watered down), flour, potatoes, and tea. These choices would then serve as the staple of many diets, with meals becoming based off of them. This culminated into a set menu in which food was planned to follow a pattern week after week.
Oftentimes the choice of food, mainly fruits and vegetables, varied according to what was in season, as well as whether or not it was locally purchasable. While certain vegetables such as onions, broccoli, and cabbage (which were considered the cheapest vegetables) were easily accessible year-round, other vegetables’ were limited in their availability. For instance,
watercress was only attainable from April-February, beans from July-September, peas from June-July, while turnips and carrots proved to be low-priced edibles throughout the bleak winter months. In a similar manner, fruit was also confined to exact months of the year. While apples were cheaply obtainable August-May, cherries were only purchasable from May-July, plums from July-September, and gooseberries from June-August. With fruit consumption narrowed predominantly to the summertime, unless families preserved them in autumn, families yearly dined on vegetables they could manage to afford or grow themselves.
Meat ConsumptionMeat consumption was one of the many differences that separated the rich from the poor. In the Victorian era, the amount of meat consumed reflected one’s income. Daily consumption of meat indicated a higher income, while consuming limited amounts of meat was linked to strict poverty. Joints of meat were considered a rare treat for the poor. Thus, the amount of meat served during meal times decreased throughout the classes, beginning from the upper
class, who would have had meat daily. Those with lesser wages could expect meat on the table two or three times a week, alongside potatoes and vegetables. Those within the urban and rural working class would also utilize the scraps and leftover chunks of butchered meat in order to create sausages. The expectation of meat would continue to decrease down the classes until the lowest, most destitute level was reached, where the poor would consume potatoes as the sole food without any meat upon the horizon. For families with whom meat was a luxury, some chose to substitute eggs by housing hens within their backyards, which could result in up to a dozen eggs per week.
Lower ClassThe quality of food consumed by the poor was exceptionally low; its quantity limited. Those unfortunate enough to be born into the lower class often had their growth severely stunted from eating only bread, tea, drippings, potatoes or potato pairings, and spoiled vegetables daily. Children in particular were victims of this poor diet, eating whatever their parents ate.
If you were a poor farm laborer however, there was a light at the end of the tunnel as you had a chance of eating a better diet than those in the city. This was due to the fact that those within the farming industry had easy access to meat, fresh milk, and vegetables (which could be conveniently saved year-round in root cellars; impossible to do in cities). Hence, children in rural areas often had the essential nutrients their bodies desired for advancement and improvement.
Breakfast: The lower classes, whose jobs involved abundant manual labor, burned 50-100% more calories than present-day society due to their physically active routine. Suffice to say, obesity hardly existed within the lower classes, although they did in fact require more food, especially in the mornings before work. A common breakfast might have included one or two pieces of bread spattered with drippings (animal fats composed from the greasy, worthless parts of pig or cow carcasses), tea, and a bundle of watercress. Not to be outdone, the urban poor regularly devoured delectable items such as broxy (sheep that were often diseased), slink (premature calves), and tripe (the first or second stomach of a cow).
Lunch: For the lower class, lunch consisted of hot or cold meat, soup, and a bit of cheese. Instead of soft cheese, hard cheese was the more preferred staple because whenever the heel of a cheese proved too hard to eat, families would toast the ends to facilitate consumption. Those residing in rural areas had simple access to birds and other game for their tables come lunchtime.
Dinner: Dinner shared many similarities with lunch. Another option would have been to make a broth or a stew, which would have lasted one family a whole week. But as you can imagine, the meat within such a stew wouldn’t have endured the entire week, so it would’ve been very thickly salted. And, once the stew appeared not as nourishing or thick as it was from the outset, people would have added additional items to thicken the stew, such as barley, porridge oats, lentils, etc. In comparison, those unfortunate enough to be living in workhouses could expect gruel, cheese, potatoes, and bread for dinner.
Breakfast: To begin their glorious day, the upper class consumed animal proteins such as eggs and bacon (a classic), but also fish, grilled tomatoes, or even deviled kidneys and smoked herring (considered rich British delicacies). Hence, compared with countless poor children, the rich were usually bursting at the start of each day.
Lunch: Lunch was comparable to breakfast, but included more meat. With the introduction of afternoon tea (which involved additional food such as cake, scones with jam and clotted cream, and tea sandwiches), lunch became light in quantity, while dinner was served later than usual.
Dinner: For the upper class, dinner was considered the most colossal meal of the day. Those dining alone could expect an average of five courses. Those entertaining guests could anticipate as many as twenty dishes served in two grand courses, while incredibly extravagant parties might include up to sixty dishes. Tables were often laid with exquisite dishes such as appetizing soups, fish, roasted poultry, various cheeses, meats, and vegetables. Light, sweet dishes such as pickles, fruit preserves, cake, puddings, rolls with cream and jam, coffee, citrus or lemon ice, and wine would either follow suit or were offered in between the richer courses. One may conceptualize that the mark of obesity proved more frequent among the rich. Now, if this seem a bit extreme in the portion and calorie regions, bear in mind that dinner parties were viewed as an opportunity to elevate one’s social status by a display of one’s wealth in the form of food, tableware, staff, etc.
Want to find out more about how the upper class ate? Check out this link! - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5dr8WSPhzw
Nutrition Note: As you can infer from the mention of grilled tomatoes, vegetables, pickles, and fruit preserves in the previous section, the upper class possessed higher levels of crisp, natural fruits and vegetables, which they ate locally and within their appropriate season.
Works CitedClayton, Paul, and Judith Rowbotham. "How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate, and Died." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 6.3 (2009). NCBI. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672390/>.