Over the years Punch responded to the practice of food adulteration with comic articles and cartoons. Although darkly humorous, ‘The Great Lozenge-Maker’ contains a serious and cautionary message, too. Featuring a confectioner who appears as a skeleton, a common personification of death, surrounded by boxes of arsenic and plaster of Paris, it references a famous case of poisoning in Bradford in 1858. Dozens fell ill and over 20 people died, including many children, after eating adulterated peppermints. Normally, the confectioner, Joseph Neal, replaced part of the sugar with plaster of Paris – a widely practised, and still harmful, adulteration. On this occasion, however, he had been unknowingly supplied with deadly arsenic.
The cartoon’s title – ‘A Hint to Paterfamilias’ – indicates that it is a warning to parents about the potential dangers of treating their children to sweets. Further reinforcing this message is the box titled ‘BON-BONS FOR JUVENILE PARTIES’ which sits on the top-shelf. Before the Bradford case, the Select Committee on the Adulteration of Food, Drink and Drugs, formed by parliament in the summer of 1855, revealed that sweets were brightly coloured using toxic minerals. A vivid green, for instance, was achieved by using copper acetoarsenite, an arsenic compound.
Outrageously, nobody was prosecuted from the Bradford confectioner’s because there was no law in place that made food adulteration illegal. It captured the nation’s attention, however, and mobilised efforts to ban the practice.
The problem of food adulteration in the 19th century
Food adulteration flourished because it was a way to cut cost and increase profit. It was also used to improve the appearance of some food and drink, thereby making it more attractive to customers. All sorts of materials were added to food and drink, such as potatoes to bulk out bread or poisonous or inedible substances such as chalk or sugar of lead (a toxic lead-based acetate) to whiten milk.
During the 1850s the extent of the problem was revealed, and public outrage ensued.