Death in the Pot

3131768052_c5f23479db_oPoison. It’s whats for dinner.

In 1820, Fredrick Accum wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons  to exhibit “the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy.”

This work promoted awareness of food poisoning–and the need for food safety oversight. It was controversial at the time, because it threatened the burgeoning food processing industry. Nonetheless, as the title page suggests, there was often death in the pot.

Food Processing in the 19th century

In the 18th century novel Humphrey Clinker, the father of the titular character described the unhealthy means of getting food in the city. Greens were sometimes boiled with a copper penny to give them a greener color, and milk was carried through the streets in buckets, getting warmer as the day wore on. In the 19th century, much had improved, but food still had to travel long distances. Meat, in particular, could be problematic. Sometimes the animals were still alive for the journey, but that also meant that animals from mixed groups were kept together in small quarters, promoting disease. Once butchered, meat that appeared diseased might be cleaned or cut up for sausage or pies to avoid detection.

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“O man of God, there is death in the pot.” –2 Kings 4:40

To alleviate these issues, some animals like geese might be “town bred” or raised in pens right in the heart of London. In fact, a town-bred goose is the subject of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” Of course, raising the animal nearer its food destination had problems of its own, including pollution from London’s many coal chimney pots and possibly contaminated feed. (That is, stolen blue gemstones were not the only things that might be crammed down a goose’s throat). These problems were further exacerbated by lack of refrigeration, lack of oversight–and that doesn’t even consider the actual processing plants (which were dangerous, unclean, and frequently infested with rodents).

Death of Another Sort

The response to Accum’s work was mixed. It was very popular with the public and sold well, coming out in a second edition. However, in the forward of that edition, he confesses to having received death threats from the food industry. Though he did much to bring food safety to the table, in the end, he was forced to flee England for Germany, in fear for his life. Despite his exile, his work continued to be published and reaches a wide audience in Europe and the US.

For more about food adulteration in the 19th century (and its relationship to similar problems today), you might be interested in Food Adulteration, the Victorians and Us or Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud.

Published by

Brandy Schillace

Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

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