Archive | April 2016

Food, Glorious Food!


Food in the Victorian era advanced as a result of technology. In 1830, about 90 percent of all food consumed in Britain was grown in Britain. By 1900, the United Kingdom could enjoy food that came from around the globe.

Food preservation became more reliable and more widespread in the Victorian era. In the late 18th century, Emperor Napoleon, concerned about feeding his armies, had offered a prize to anyone who could develop a way of preserving food. The tin can was invented by Nicholas Appert, who realized that if food were sealed tightly enough and then heated, it wouldn’t spoil.

In 1810 Englishman Peter Durand found a way to seal food into unbreakable tin containers. Bryan Dorkin and John Hall, perfecting this technique, set up the first commercial canning factory in England in 1813.By 1839, tin-coated steel cans were widely in use.

Strangely, the can opener wasn’t patented until 1858. It was surely a vast improvement over a hammer and chisel, which was the way people had to open cans before its invention.

Eliza Acton published The English Bread Book in 1852, analyzing all the then-current research on wholesome food and warning against adulteration; she had visited some bakeries where alum was added to bread in almost equal quantities to flour. Acton’s book, Modern Cookery, contained an abundance of recipes using wholesome ingredients. She was the first cookbook writer to list the ingredients needed for the dish in an orderly way, which anyone who’s gotten half-way through an instructions-only recipe and come across an unexpected item will surely appreciate.

The closed range came down in price and became a kitchen staple in the 1850s and 1860s. Originally, an “open range” was an iron box with a flat top that sat beside the open fire in the fireplace (hence the “open” designation) so that a cook could bake something inside the box while cooking something on the flat top, and spit-roasting a joint over the open fire beside it. The closed range drew the heat from the fire through various flues, so the oven part would heat evenly. These new closed ranges were excellent, especially when they had hot-water boilers beside them to produce hot water for bathing, cleaning and laundry.

An Englishman named Grimwade takes out a patent for drying milk in 1855. Dried milk became a basis for infant and baby foods. Glass baby bottles with rubber nipples also became available.

nancy-on-his-kneeIn 1855, canned meat began to be imported into England from North America and Australia.

By the middle of the century, condiments and preserves, pickles and sauces were increasingly purchased from dry-goods grocers rather than being made at home. Worcestershire sauce, curry powders, marmelades, instant soup packets and Bird’s custard powder might all be found in the middle-class pantry by 1870.

Frenchman Hippolyte Mege-Mouries took out a patent in England for his butter substitute, oleomargarine, in 1869.

And continuing in the developments in the area of refrigeration begun by Bostonian Frederic Tudor in the early 1800s, in 1876, the S S Strathleven arrived in London, its refrigerated hold packed with fresh meat from Australia and New Zealand.

And of course, where would Britain be without tea? In 1833, the East India Company lost its monopoly over the China tea trade, and the next year a substantial drop in the tea duty went into effect. This made tea the beverage of choice in England. By 1857, the British people were consuming an average of 2 ½ pounds of tea a year, which averages out to one or two cups of tea a day.



The Victorian Cookbook, by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, c. 1989

Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, by Andrea Broomfield, c. 2007


*Also, if you’re interested in a recipe for Spotted Dog, check out Lobscouse and Spotted Dog by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas, c. 1997 (it’s not Victorian, because it’s a gastronomic companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, but it’s got some great recipes).



Victorian Tweets to Tickle Your Fancy

I browsed around Twitter today, and found the following gems! If you’re looking for some interesting, pretty, funny and inspiring tidbits of information, check out these tweets:

Victorian Cat Funerals

Victorian Samplers embroidered by young girls

Digital Dickens-Finding Boz online

A 1898 Critic’s Choice List of Best Novels – Have you read them all?

Victorian Spinning Tops, now in GIF form

Ode to Kate Greenaway, Victorian illustrator


Illustration by Kate Greenaway










Victorian Love Letters from a Valet to a Housekeeper

Newly discovered Charlotte Bronte poem

Victorian Halloween Costumes

Why Victorians thought women taking Tea Breaks was dangerous

Browse and enjoy!




W.S. Gilbert: Writerly Beginnings


What is to become of me? Am I destined to revolutionize the art of comic writing? Am I the man who is destined to write the burlesques and extravaganzas of the future? Are managers of theaters and editors of light literature doomed to fall prostrate at my feet in humble obeisance? Is it to me that society at large must look for amusement for the next (say) forty years?   To these questions I unhesitatingly reply, “I am! They are! It is!”

– William S. Gilbert, writing as “A Trembling Beginner,” in The Art of Parody, Fun (9 Sept 1865)


In 1861, W.S. Gilbert was a 25-year-old clerk in the Education Department, a dead-end job he hated. But thanks to a bequest of £300 from his relative, was able to escape that “10 to 4 drudgery.” He put most of the money toward a future career as a barrister, but he also bought a quire of paper, some pens and a few wood blocks. Gilbert’s goal was to be a writer for the comic papers.

gilbert-comicHe was a self-taught artist, and learned to draw his little caricatures and figures onto a prepared woodblock, which, when engraved, would produce the black-and-white line drawings for the publication.

In the autumn of 1861, he submitted a poem, “Satisfied Isaiah Jones,” to a publication called Good Words. The editor thought it was funny, but too long, and so rejected it. But Gilbert persisted. Next, he wrote an article that was three-quarters of a column long, created a half-page drawing on a wood block to accompany it, and submitted them both to a new comic magazine called Fun.

The editor of Fun, H. J. Byron, liked what he saw. He asked Gilbert to contribute a weekly column and a half-page drawing every week. Amazed, Gilbert later wrote, “I hardly knew how to treat the offer, for it seemed to me that into that short article I had poured all I knew. I was empty. I had exhausted myself; I didn’t know any more.”

He signed himself, “Our Used-Up Contributor.”

This feeling that he had run out of ideas stayed with Gilbert all his life – throughout that first decade when his writing ranged from burlesques, to squibs, fillers, short articles, drama criticism and topical essays, to his marvelous collection of poems called The Bab Ballads, and later to plays both dramatic and comedic, all the way to the librettos of the brilliant comic operas he co-authored with Arthur Sullivan.

This fear, Gilbert said, “invariably haunts me…  on the completion of every work involving a sustained effort. At first, it used to scare me, but I have long learnt to recognize it as a mere bogey, and to treat it with the contempt it deserves.”

According to biographer Jane Stedman, this feeling came about because of Gilbert’s intense concentration on each work as he wrote it. In writing a play, he would “eat that piece and drink that piece and exude that piece, and identify myself altogether with that piece,” he once wrote to a friend.

Perhaps, in those early years of his writing career, the many pseudonyms he wrote under helped to bring him new ideas when he felt exhausted – at Fun, he wrote as The Comic Physiognomist, The Comic Mythologist, A. Dapter, Desiderius Erasmus, A Trembling Widow, R. Ditty, A. Pittite, Animal Carraccio, R. Chimedes, and Snarler.


So here is a question for you, Dear Reader: When you feel that you’ve run out of ideas, what do you do? Leave a comment and tell me how you refill your creative well.






The Legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan – on TV

Over the 150 years that their works have been shared with the world, Gilbert and Sullivan have had an indelible effect on popular culture in the English-speaking world. Last week, I shared a list of movies that have a Gilbert and Sullivan connection – and this week, I’m offering you a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of G&S television references!

Let’s start with some lively tunes from The Mikado.

In this clip, popular singer and TV talk show hostess Dinah Shore pairs up with jazz great Ella Fitzgerald and opera diva “La Stupenda” Joan Sutherland for a fun rendition of “Three Little Maids From School Are We”:


(They also sing “Lover Come Back to Me,” and who can ever have enough of this lovely trio?)

The classic sitcom Frasier featured a number of Gilbert and Sullivan references. In the first clip, the “endearingly pompous” Frasier and his brother Niles (both psychiatrists by training) sing “Tit Willow”:



And in this Vine video, Frasier’s radio station co-workers trick him into singing “Three Little Maids” in a falsetto voice –which is then broadcast live on the air (Episode 3.04 Leapin Lizards):



From the TV show Angel, vampire hunter Charles Gunn is overheard singing “Three Little Maids” – until someone catches him:



Other Gilbert and Sullivan works have gotten their moments on the air, including H. M. S. Pinafore’s “For He Is An Englishman” and the Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance.

American screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin is a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and wrote in several delightful references to their works in his long-running TV drama, The West Wing.

In this clip from the episode, “And it’s Surely To Their Credit,” Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) is a conservative Republican who has just joined a very Democratic White House staff as an associate White House Counsel. Her right to be there is challenged by her very left-leaning boss, White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey (John Laroquette).



That clip sets up this one, in which the other staffers finally accept Ainsley, decorating her office with Gilbert and Sullivan posters and surprising her with a song:



In the sitcom Home Improvement, Tim the Handyman’s sidekick Al thinks no one can hear him singing The Major General’s song from The Pirates of Penzance:



In fact, the Major General’s song is very popular! Here is a collection of references to this song:


And, I couldn’t leave out my very favorite parody of the Major General’s song – “The Elements.” The inimitable song-writer and humorist Tom Lehrer took all the elements listed on the Periodic Table, and set them to that rousing tune:



Younger folks might remember this version of the song because Daniel Radcliffe sang “The Elements” as a party trick on the Graham Norton Show.



Tom Lehrer also referenced Gilbert and Sullivan in his version of “My Darling Clementine.” He took that famous folk tune and re-imagined it as it might have been written by Noel Coward, Mozart, Thelonious Monk, and finally, Gilbert and Sullivan.