Waste Not, Want Not: Interpreting Thrift through Victorian Food Writing

By Lindsay Middleton

When you use ‘thrift’ in conversations today, the word carries connotations of frugality and, perhaps, tightfistedness. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, however, the meaning of ‘thrift’ was being reinvigorated. Cookbooks and etiquette guides such as Samuel Smiles’s Thrift (1875) told their middle- and working-class readers to return to thriftier ways of living. By doing so, people would supposedly be morally superior, living without wastefulness and making society more efficient. Food was one of the ways readers could adopt thrift into their lifestyles, and as Smiles said: ‘[h]ealth, morals, and family enjoyments are all connected with the question of cookery. Above all, it is the handmaid of Thrift’ (Smiles 1876: 370). Speaking at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference, my paper explored how thrift and food preservation were framed within Victorian food texts. Looking at three recipes from cookbooks and three from periodicals – published between 1866 and 1895 – I structurally analysed recipes to examine how they use words, space on the page, different textual forms and food technologies. Changes between these characteristics can be compared to reach wider conclusions: for instance, the way innovations in food preservation influenced cooking times.

C19th silver soup tureen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What my paper showed, was that recipes were engaging with thrift and preservation and attempting to bring them into the Victorian home. Furthermore, both of these topics were intertwined in the debates of the time. The recipe for ‘Gravy Soup’ found in Charles Buckmaster’s Buckmaster’s Cookery (1874) uses a tin of preserved meat, boiling it to make soup. Tinned meat circulated in Britain from 1813, when Donkin and Hall supplied it to the Navy, and it was slowly adopted as a domestic ingredient from that point. A scandal in 1852, however, concerning 264 rotten cans destined for the Navy, meant the public were suspicious of canned meat when Buckmaster was writing. Despite public concern, tinned meat was fast becoming a valuable food resource, as British livestock quantities were failing to feed an ever-growing population. Buckmaster’s way of convincing readers to try the soup is to appeal to the middle-classes, who could have afforded his book and were involved in setting trends. He declares that ‘prejudice against preserved meat can only be gradually overcome by the middle and upper classes eating it’ (1874: 106) and suggests serving the soup in a decorative tureen. This elevates ideas of thrift and preservation away from the notion that people who were thrifty had to be, because they were poor. By making thrift a fashionable thing that appeals to the middle-classes, Buckmaster implicates it in the class relations of the time as well as discussions of food supply, demonstrating that thrift and food preservation were integrated into Victorian current affairs.

Other recipes demonstrate that thrift was framed using nutrition, economy and self-sufficiency. A satirical story published in All the Year Round in 1874, the periodical edited by Charles Dickens and then Charles Dickens Jr., shows that thrifty foods were so ubiquitous they were being used for entertainment. In the story, the female narrator describes her cooking-school instructress making mutton croquettes from a leftover joint. The tutor misses the point, telling students to use the finest cut of mutton and expensive ingredients. The narrator scorns this approach, advocating that people should properly adopt thrift in their kitchens. I compared this recipe to one for croquettes in Eliza Warren Francis’s How I Managed my House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year (1864) which uses the last scraps of meat available. Though the recipes stand in opposition to one another, they each convey the same message: thrift was to be encouraged. These recipe authors address a range of people, different physical spaces, and use different textual spaces to demonstrate that thrift and preservation were issues that occupied a myriad of spaces within Victorian society.

Victorian reformer, Samuel Smiles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What delivering this paper at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference showed, was that the Victorian recipes I studied were revitalising ideas of thrift and economy that had been around for centuries past. The other papers determined that these ideas were in no way new, but were often refashioned at times of societal change. By making thrifty foods fashionable and a matter of morals, the Victorians were attempting to discourage wastefulness, so that Britain could adapt to changes such as increasing industrialisation and a still-growing population. Throughout history, then, an analysis of these ideologies through the lens of food can be a window into the realities of the past.


Buckmaster, Charles. Buckmaster’s Cookery. London: George, Routledge and Sons, 1874.

Dickens, Charles, Jr (ed.). ‘Learning to Cook.’ All the Year Round, 12.306 (1874): 611-617.

Smiles, Samuel. Thrift. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875.

Warren Francis, Eliza. How I Managed My House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864.