1800s food


A Century of Change

This century was marked by vast industrial development, by factories and gadgets, extravagance and pollution, mass poverty and charity. The world became ever more crowded, with the population of Europe more than doubling between 1800 and 1900. As urban life grew increasingly grimy, country life was plagued by poor harvests and crop disease, leading to famine and food riots. As in the previous century, there were vast population shifts, with many moving from the country to the city in search of work. The poor provided cheap labour to fill the factories, an essential component of the burgeoning industrial economy. At the same time, the middle classes were growing, as trade and industry led many into higher-status jobs - the industrial world was thirsty for bankers, shippers, clerks and managers.

Food and Technology

Scientific and technological innovations transformed the nature of food production, driven not only by profit motive but also by the need to feed the growing population. The invention of the steam engine speeded up the process of food transportation, allowing fresh meat, fish and dairy produce to be sent all over the country on shiny new railways. This immensely improved the quality of produce in the cities. Milk, for instance, no longer had to be wrenched out of a spindly cow in a dingy urban alley - instead the city dweller could drink unsullied country produce, transported directly by rail and kept fresh with the aid of a mechanical cooler. The spread of rail outside Europe also aided international trade: Indian tea and American grain could be whisked overland straight to the ports, where they were brought to growing markets back home.

The English Tea

With more tea and wheat in England than ever before, prices dropped. Tea had been a valuable delicacy in the previous century. In the 1800s the average factory worker gulped a cup down with his slice of bread - although in fact this was little better nutritionally than the gruel and ale of previous diets. As commodity production expanded, so did the importance of the British Empire which provided, as well as raw materials, new overseas markets in which mass-produced goods could be sold. Consequently vast amounts of cargo moved across the world, enabling the houses of wealthy Europeans to become crammed with products. At the same time, the colonies became increasingly dependent on European imports.


The invention of canning technology meant that cheap meat could be shipped from Australia, and that all sorts of produce - such as carrots, soup, vegetable stew - could be preserved without being salted or pickled. Progress in glass technology led to the improvement of microscopes; this in turn brought about the discovery of bacteria, leading to advances in medicine and food preservation, and to a greater awareness of food hygiene.

The activities inside the Victorian kitchen were also transformed. Designers pateneted new state-of-the-art ovens that enabled cooks to control temperatures using a complex system of flues and metal plates. Now the middle class cook could prepare the complicated meals and delicate dishes that were previously reserved for the wealthy owners of grand kitchens. Cast iron and tin-plated equipment replaced brass and copper. Kitchens became cluttered with mass-produced implements such as pastry cutters, jelly moulds, pie moulds and biscuit tins. The Victorians also introduced a whole array of nifty gadgets: graters, potato peelers, mincers, and bean slicers.

Cookery Books

During the 19th century cookery books became enormously popular. Authors like Mrs Beeton were catering for a rapidly growing middle class. Published initially in affordable monthly parts, Beeton's 'Household Management' advised readers on a vast range of 'essential' subjects, such as how to fold napkins, how to entertain guests, how to create the perfect Christmas dinner, or how to organise the duties of different staff members.

For the first time, the country was intrigued by the stars of the kitchen - what we would now call 'celebrity chefs'. Alexis Soyer, famous head chef at the Reform Club, produced numerous books, while also manufacturing a range of sauces and numerous kitchen implements, and advising the army on the dietary needs of soldiers. Much of his work, including his book A Shilling Cookery for the People, was directed at the lower classes, showing an attempt to improve the eating habits of those living on a tight budget; a Victorian Jamie Oliver perhaps?

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