How Britain ate in the 1930s
The British diet in the 1930s was changing, as modern technologies brought new convenience foods to the market
Changes in the pantry
The interwar years witnessed a marked change in the food being consumed by the average British family. In his excellent book We Danced All Night – a Social History of Britain Between the Wars, Martin Pugh explains that – among other factors - the increased household income that came from women entering the workplace during World War I meant that spending power and as such consumption – not just of more comestibles, but also a better quality – had a massive impact on the British diet.
The decade saw a number of edible innovations. Clarence Birdseye introduced his range of frozen food at the start of the decade, which made its way to Britain in 1937 (though it wouldn’t experience huge success until after the war). Pre-sliced bread, made possible in 1928 by American inventor Otto Rohwedder, was popularised during the 1930s.
The decade saw a number of edible innovations. Clarence Birdseye introduced his range of frozen food at the start of the decade, which made its way to Britain in 1937
A nation addicted to sugar
The period was a golden age for anyone with a sweet tooth. The 1930s saw the invention of the Mars Bar, Smarties, the Crunchie, the Aero, Maltesers, Rolos and Kit Kats. A love of all things sweet permeated most of the British diet, indeed Brits were one of the biggest per capita consumers of sugar in the world.
Sugar was added in high quantities to jam, cakes, chocolate and the mammoth quantities of tea the average person consumed. In certain cases, the expense of milk and its short shelf life meant that tinned evaporated milk – itself full of sugar – took its place in the pantry.
Cans and convenience
The 1930s saw the continued rise in popularity of canned food, which became widespread in the 1920s, and was produced by companies like Heinz and Campbell’s. Extended shelf lives and consistent quality meant that many family staples were purchased in cans as a preference. While the consumption of fresh fruit did increase in during the period according to Pugh, “the further down the social scale one went the less was consumed; indeed many people considered fruit unhealthy especially for children.”
Despite a widespread availability of fresh fruit, many families would rely on canned peaches, pineapple or other fruit. This would come either stewed or in a state of near-suspension in a sugary syrup, practically devoid of nutrients.
Packaged and convenience food boomed in the 1930s. Aside from the sliced bread and frozen food mentioned above, a number of new additions to the British kitchen were made. In 1932, Nescafe introduced instant coffee, taken in the morning alongside either easy-to-make porridge or even-easier-to-make Kellogg’s Cornflakes, which were so successful in Britain in the 1930s, Kellogg’s opened a factory in Manchester in 1938.
A problem of sustainability
This increased consumption and taste for new flavours and styles of food left Britain with sustainability issues.
...It is startling to note,” Pugh states “that just 2% of the onions consumed in Britain were grown at home. Some 76% of cheese, 88% of flour, 82% of sugar, 55% of meat and 40% of eggs came from abroad
According to Pugh, due to favourable rates, by 1937 over two thirds of all food imports came from the empire. Britain had enough to eat, but wasn’t producing anywhere near enough to sustain itself. “It is startling to note,” Pugh states “that just 2% of the onions consumed in Britain were grown at home. Some 76% of cheese, 88% of flour, 82% of sugar, 55% of meat and 40% of eggs came from abroad. As a result, the outbreak of war found Britain with a population that was better fed but even more vulnerable to attacks on merchant shipping than it had been in 1914.”
Main image:A family sit round a table and take afternoon tea. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library