Observations on London Milk documents the poor quality and adulteration of milk, one of several foodstuffs that was commonly tampered with in the mid-19th century. The pamphlet was written in 1850 by H Hodson Rugg who describes himself as a ‘medical man’ (p. 27).
What did this pamphlet reveal about food adulteration?
Food adulteration was a widespread problem in the 19th century. Numerous food producers and retailers tampered with their products in order to cut costs or increase profits. All sorts of materials were added to products, including 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 by investigators such as Rugg, and public outrage ensued. During surprise visits to premises and based on anecdotal evidence, Rugg discovered that the most common substances used to adulterate milk were ‘water, flour, starch, chalk, and the brains of sheep’ (p. 30), as well as ‘treacle, salt, whiting, sugar of lead’ – the latter being highly poisonous.
Furthermore, Rugg discovered that the majority of London’s cows were suffering from tuberculosis (also known as consumption) (p. 9). The highly contagious disease was passed into their milk and consumed by humans to whom, as the author supposes, the fatal disease was passed on.
Anxieties over food adulteration in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Food appears throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and in several scenes there are possible references to food adulteration. A notable example is when ‘wise little Alice’ checks whether the bottle labelled 'Drink me' is ‘“marked … ‘poison' or not”’; Carroll was perhaps influenced by the fact that many unmarked foods and liquids on the market were indeed poisonous. Of course, Alice is also following a common childhood lesson here, ‘that, if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later’.