Krugman on English food (3). Industrialization

So now from urbanization to industrialization, the second of the two culprits that Paul Krugman fingers for the awfulness of English food.

1.  Perhaps Krugman means that the British industrial revolution was responsible for industrialized food.  I don’t think he can because the dates are all wrong. At least in its classic period, usually, if somewhat arbitrarily, dated from 1750 to 1850, the British Industrial Revolution  had little to do with food.

The possible exceptions are the industrialization of British-style beer and an attempt to introduce continuous baking of  hard tack (crackers) for the Navy.

Water or wind continued to drive most grist mills, the major food processing machines of the day, turning grains into flour. Only if they were situated very close to a coal-pit was steam used. The most famous steam-driven mill, the Albion Mill, in the East End of London, erected by Boulton and Watt, could not compete with water and wind mills, and was not replaced when it was burned down.

(The main foci of the British industrial revolution were  spinning and weaving, stationary steam engines, later the rotary steam engine for railroads and steamships, ceramics, and new ways of making iron. Canals, railroads and steamships lowered the cost of transport. New methods of farming (still far, far from industrial agriculture) increased productivity.)

2. Perhaps Krugman means that the British Industrial Revolution, although it started in the country where coal, iron, clay, and water provided the raw materials, did accelerate urban growth, particularly in towns such as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and so on, and that these towns needed industrialized food.

The towns, however, including London depended chiefly on bread produced in traditional ways. The wheat was  grown in fields plowed by oxen or horses, harvested by hand, stone ground in those grist mills, and batch baked in small ovens. The poor spent between a half and four fifths of their weekly income on bread.

This was as it had been for millennia not just in Britain but in all societies with cities. Grains fuelled cities. No other foodstuff gives so much bang for the buck. With a high caloric and nutritional value to weight recipe and easily storable, grains could be transported to cities and stored to feed them, maize or rice if not wheat. (Note, even in the late 60s, American’s were getting 25-30% of their calories from bread).

Lowered transport prices, not industrialization, made bread affordable during the nineteenth century. For bringing grain or flour to cities, horse-drawn barges (dismissed by Krugman) were very efficient. The opening of the Erie Canal, for example, dramatically lowered grain prices on the East Coast according to Wikipedia, as well as in Britain from the late 1840s on.

Only at the end of the nineteenth century, was the grinding of flour industrialized with the introduction of the steel roller mill, only in the twentieth century did flow through baking replace batch baking.

As James Belich puts it in his fascinating book, Replenishing the Earth (Oxford, 2009, 2-3), “The curious thing about London and New York was that they became mega-cities before the modern agro-industrial revolution.”

3.  The industrialization of food processing did not really get under way until after the mid-nineteenth century, its heyday being between 1870 and 1920.  By then, the entire industrialising world was in the game.

The French led the way in beet sugar and margarine; the Austro-Hungarians in roller milling of flour.  All European and American countries produced sweet and savory biscuits (cookies and crackers) and jam. Canned goods were made by Cirio in Italy, Nestle in Switzerland, Borden, Dole, Heinz and a host of others in the US, Amieux-Frères in France, Herdez in Mexico, Morinage and Kagome in Japan, as well as Crosse & Blackwell in England.

Japan worked out how to industrialize fermented goods as fast or faster than the West.  They introduced monosodium glutamate in the early twentieth century. Shanghai had roller mills for flour by the early twentieth century.  Mexico turned out crackers, Argentina dried pasta. Rice polishing mills, often made in Germany or England, were installed across the rice-eating countries of Asia.

Thus Britain was not a leader in industrialized food but one in the pack.

In short, Britain’s early urbanization and industrialization did not produce a change in the food eaten in Britain.  The big changes came later and happened in all urbanizing and industrialising countries.  Perhaps Krugman wanted to say that this caused the food in all these countries to decline in quality and that Britain is just his example. What I don’t think he can say is that Britain was uniquely affected by urbanization and industrialization.


I haven’t finished yet.  I want to talk about at least four more topics.  (1) How Krugman’s thesis reflects a widely held historiography and politics of food. (2) Whether nations (as opposed to say, classes) are the best units for telling food history.  (3) Why we need to know what rural food was like before drawing conclusions about the effects of industrialization.  And (4) Why we need to take past culinary philosophies into account.

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4 thoughts on “Krugman on English food (3). Industrialization

  1. Evilcyber

    I’m very much looking forward to the rest of this series, Rachel, and would have never figured that the quality of English food could provide such an intriguing narrative!

  2. Faustino

    Krugman was once a rigorous and first-rate economist, and I often drew on his work when providing economic policy advice to governments. Well into his career, he took on the useful role of explaining economics to a wider audience. Unfortunately, this degenerated into highly opinionated and ideological op-ed pieces, and a loss of his previous rigour; as illustrated in the work you critique.

    Born in central England in 1942 and growing up in a poor family in the North-East, I can attest to the awful quality of food consumed by the masses. There seemed to be a lack of sensitivity, I was amazed to discover as an adult in London that some foods which had always been abhorrent could, in fact, be enjoyed with reasonable preparation. This had nothing to do with the market – in the period in question almost all meals were home-prepared.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this Faustino. I chose Krugman as my target not because it is a well argued piece but because it sums up so neatly a very widely held opinion. I grew up at about the same time in a rural middle class family so never experienced the awful food that you did. But I want to go on to make some general points about how to investigate food (or other) history, one of the points being that chosing the nation as your unit of analysis is not necessarily the way to go.
      Oh and agreed that food was home cooked in that period. Very, very little eating out.
      And if you drove all that traffic to my site, many thanks. Rachel


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