“The Smells of London” and their Sources at the Fin de Siècle

By Jess Clark

In September 1889, the London Times printed a complaint from a disturbed Kensington resident. Under the heading “Smells of London,” Arthur Clay challenged “[t]he apathy with which Londoners submit to be bathed in disgusting odours.”[i] The author complained of distressing smells blanketing North Kensington, typically at night and often in the summer. Despite his claims that Londoners didn’t care, the response to his initial letter proved otherwise; Clay’s submission set off some three years of correspondence from displeased and disgusted residents. Despite sanitary initiatives, they described nuisance smells that they ascribed to a number of different sources: polluted waterways, dirty streets, blocked drains, poor ventilation. Contrasting official messages about the efficiency of London’s orderly modern infrastructures, correspondents instead foregrounded olfactory disorder.

In this early etching, George Cruikshank criticizes the expansion of building schemes across London. “Building materials marching out of London of their own accord to build suburban housing over greenfield sites,” 1829. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In taking to the London Times, correspondents discovered a forum to express their displeasure over London’s transforming urban smellscapes.[ii] In the wake of rapid growth and residential development, some nineteenth-century Londoners found themselves living next to chemical works and other industrialized sites. The mixing of residential and industrial space proved a recipe for Londoners’ dissatisfaction: in the lack of municipal action, in the lack of private responses, in the horrible stenches that wafted into their homes each and every night.

Indeed, if we look to letters in the Times between 1889 and 1891, many Kensington residents were deeply upset by the smell nuisances. To capture their frustration, they tapped into anxieties around smell’s “subjectiv[ity], variabi[lity], and uncertain[ty],” which had long been the source of its “social and cultural power,” in the words of Will Tullett.[iii] For some, this meant framing smells as night-time invaders of the home—a domestic sanctuary, which was supposed to be a refuge from public, daytime lives. One lady and her young ward, for instance, “both smelt the bad smell” in Eaton Place, Belgravia. She continued, “It awoke me; she was awake. It was very nasty and quite different to any other smell.”[iv] In another example, a letter writer “actually went downstairs in the belief that some part of the house was on fire.” He was not alone. “Other members of my family have had the same experiences, and not long ago searched the whole house from roof to basement for the supposed combustion going on.”[v] In a period of heightened distinction between private and public space, invisible nocturnal smells disturbed the illusion of domestic safety, as an external disorder that penetrated the sanctity of the private abode.

Other authors foregrounded the alleged health effects of these nocturnal smells, suggesting the longstanding influence of miasmatic theories of illness, which had dominated an earlier period. For one author, the smells were “like the breath of Tartarus, death-laden with horrid stenches and health-destroying fumes….” Meanwhile, the vicar of St. Matthews ominously observed “[t]he wonder is that we are alive to tell the tale.”[vi] For these authors, the stench was a disruption but moreover—it was a health hazard. “In my house, which looks across the whole of Hyde Park, the smell leaves us with headaches and sore throats,” explained another author, before demanding “what must be the effects in the narrow streets of small dwellings?”[vii]

Detail from Charles Booth’s “Life and Labour of the People in London” (1898), showing Kensington and the easterly edge of Hammersmith (including its brickfields). Courtesy of LSE Charles Booth’s London, public domain mark.

After three years of correspondence, one question remained; what comprised the horrible smells that so distressed residents of North Kensington in the late 1880s? After considerable debate, the source was allegedly identified: brickfields in neighbouring Hammersmith, which produced a “horrible and nauseous smell” each night “lasting for several hours.” This was not just any stench. Brickmakers burned refuse—garbage—to fire their bricks. What’s more, this “fuel” most likely came from the local government’s efforts to collect vestry rubbish, as part of modernizing efforts in city management. In a compelling twist, attempts to rid London of garbage – a visual nuisance –made for new and horrible smell nuisances for residents. By focusing on the unsightliness of garbage, well-meaning officials neglected a key element of urban life: its smells.


[i] Arthur Clay, “The Smells of London” Times (4 September 1889): 10.

[ii] See Jonathan Reinarz, “Smell and Victorian England,” in Smell and History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018). On the importance of public complaints in the American context, see Melanie A. Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

[iii] William Tullett, “Re-Odorization, Disease, and Emotion in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 62.3 (2019): 787.

[iv] G. J. Symons et al, “The Smells of London,” The Times (10 September 1889): 6.

[v] J. E. Latton Pickering et al, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (17 October 1890): 10.

[vi] W. Domett-Stone et al, “Offensive Smells in London,” The Times (20 October 1890): 14.

[vii] E.H. Carbutt, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (15 October 1890): 7.

Bread and Resistance in Colonial Bengal

By Mohd. Ahmar Alvi

Among the many foods accompanying British colonizers to India, leavened bread was received differently by different communities and religious groups. Many upper-caste Hindus had revulsion not only for the bread but also for the other items coming out of bakeries introduced to the Indian culinary scene by the British. Meanwhile, Dalits –who had been marginalized by the Brahmins first by not being given jobs and second by being denied food eaten by the higher castes— accrued these bakeries as an opportunity to liberate themselves from unpaid, indentured, menial jobs, but also to ensure economic security and dignity. Muslims, a religious minority, also perceived these bakeries as a prospective source of earnings owing to their longstanding and auspicious connections to baking skills, inherited from the Mughals during their rule in past centuries.  

The aversion exhibited by upper-caste Hindus was predicated on a set of strong Brahmanical religious beliefs. In Hinduism, food can carry a plethora of diktats. It dictates your job, your social status, whether you are ‘pure’ or ‘polluted’, and whether you are entitled to enter a temple or not. The food one eats becomes the defining factor of one’s caste. One such way that upper-caste Hindus distinguish themselves from the lower ones is by denying the food touched or cooked by the lower castes. A high-caste Hindu can only accept food or drink from a person of a similar rank. If the food is prepared or touched by a lower caste person, it must be rejected.[i] Therefore, to accept bread coming from Dalits’ hands would be polluting and profaning to savarnas (caste Hindus). 

However, bhadralok (the educated ‘enlightened’ Bengali middle-class), under the strong influence of Brahmo Samaj [ii], used the consumption of bread as a means to record their resistance against casteism and to defy the taboo about crossing the seas to the West. A sizeable amount of literature—both fictional and autobiographical—written in Bengal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries documents this resistance.

Rajnarayan Basu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, in his 1909 autobiography, Atmacharit (Autobiography), Rajnarayan Basu (1826-1899), a famous Brahmo[iii] leader, narrates how during his college days he often consumed bread and biscuits coming from the hands of Dalits as an emblem of progress and to mobilize resistance against casteism. When he accepted Brahmosim, he consumed bread to record his protest against casteism, because, at that time, Bengal bakeries were operated by Dalits or Muslims. He remembers his Brahmo oath-taking ceremony as:

On the day when I signed the oath (at the beginning of 1846) and received Brahmoism, I was accompanied by a couple of other adults from my village. That day, we celebrated our new religion with bread and sherry. This was to show that we did not believe in distinctions of caste or creed.[iv]


Bipin Chandra Pal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932), in his autobiography, Sattar Bastar (Seventy Years), tells us how by consuming bread, albeit secretly, he along with his peers broke away from the shackles of casteism:

Though we would come out of the shop after buying flour of one paisa and holding it in our hands to show to the people. We would bring hot bread and biscuits inside our shirt pockets or inside our dhotis, and at the night, after our guardians slept, we would bring these out and have those. In this way, even while staying at Sylhet, my binding considerations of religion and caste were internally totally broken.[v]


Madhusudan Dutt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In his satirical play, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (That’s What Civilization is all About), Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873) dramatizes the response of the middle-class Bengali youth toward the consumption of bread baked by Dalits. In the play, a Vaishnava[vi] man observes some youths to learn their activities. Kali, one of the youths, suggests feeding Vaishnava fowl cutlet with bread so that his life becomes meaningful.[vii] In the nineteenth century, Vaishnavas did not consume any meat or an item prepared by a lower-caste Hindu, so this represented a particularly powerful moment of resistance.

Swami Vivekananda, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among critics, the diminishing potential of scriptural reasoning and advancing modernity in colonial Bengal meant that some detractors couched their criticism against the consumption of bread in the language of science. In 1899, Swami Vivekananda, in his essay, The East and the West, strongly opposed the consumption of bread. According to him, flour mixed with yeast became injurious to health, and he approved of the consumption of only toasted bread under special circumstances:

And as for fermented bread, it is also poison, don’t touch it at all. Flour mixed with yeast becomes injurious. Never take any fermented thing; in this respect, the prohibition in our shastras of partaking of any such article of food is a fact of great importance.[viii]

In this way, the consumption of bread was not only about sustenance, but reflected broader debates and relationships between communities and religious groups. People’s varied responses to bread thus suggest the power of food in resisting casteism in Colonial Bengal.


[i] For a detailed study on food and Hinduism see Pamela G. Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, Food and Culture. 5th ([Sydney]: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004).

[ii] This community played an important role in the genesis and development of every major religious, social, and political movement in India between 1820 and 1930. It brought about a social reformation by extending full equality to Dalits, women, and laborers, among other marginalized groups. Its members are regarded as the pioneers of liberal political consciousness and Indian nationalism. 

[iii] A believer and practitioner of the principles of Brahmo Samaj.

[iv] Rajnarayan Basu,  Atmacharit (Calcutta: Chiraya Prakasan, 1909): 44.

[v] Bipin Chandra Pal, Sattar Bastar (Calcutta: Patralakha, 1954): 92-93.

[vi] Follower of the Hindu god Vishnu and his incarnations.

[vii] Madhusudhan Dutt, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (Calcutta: Tuli Kalam, 1860): 247.

[viii] Swami Vivekananda, “The East and the West”, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Almora: Advaita Ashram, 1954): 390-91.

One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu: How Doable Was an Early Modern Japanese Recipe?

By Sora (Skye) Osuka

Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes), originally published in 1782, is often considered the first cookbook that only focuses on one ingredient and the beginning of the Hyakuchin-mono (百珍物, One Hundred Recipes of Delightful Tastes) series. Harada Nobuo, Eric Rath, and other historians of Japan have argued that cookbooks published during the Edo period were tools for vicarious consumption of cuisines that the reader could not physically obtain. However, when we carefully analyze the contents of cookbooks written in the Edo period (1603-1868), we are surprised that they are filled with the practical knowledge, the latest cooking techniques, ingredients, and utensils of that time. It was also during the Edo period, in which society formed the basis of Japanese cuisine that is still visible in the present day. The role of cookbooks like the Tofu Hyakuchin, not only as symbols of townspeople (chonin, 町人) culture and the culture of play (Asobi, 遊び) but also as a form of collective knowledge of the people who supported culinary culture during this time, cannot be underestimated.

This piece challenges the generalizing discourse surrounding cookbooks during the Edo period by first examining the popularity and accessibility of tofu as food from primary sources aimed for everyday people. Then it analyzes key aspects of Tofu Hyankuchin that separate this text from other cookbooks during this time, such as utensils, specific cut sizes, and measurements of ingredients to highlight the components that could be seen as “practical knowledge” rather than “vicarious consumption.”

Many believe that tofu was not consumed among ordinary people in the first half of the Edo period. In 1500, Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase (七十一番職人歌合, Matching Songs of Seventy-one Craftsmen) was published. Tofu seller (豆腐売り) is mentioned as the 37th job . In the accompanying illustration, a lady in a black kimono and white headband sits cross-legged on a low platform on a street selling large and small pieces of cut tofu. The author of the painting is believed to be Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). A total of 71 sections and 142 craftsman figures are displayed. In addition to the traditional craftsmen involved in the construction of temples and shrines, more low-ranking people such as female craftsmen, saleswoman, entertainers, and prostitutes who are not directly involved in material or agricultural production, are also included. Through the Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase, it can be assumed that tofu seller was one of the recognized occupations and tofu was available in the later Muromachi Period (1336-1573).

Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase [七十一番職人歌合], Tofu seller [豆腐売り] is mentioned at the 37th job, along with Somen (wheat noodle) Seller [御そうめん売り]. Published in 1500. (https://kotenseki.nijl.ac.jp/biblio/100098001/viewer/1)

In the Kansei period (1789-1801) or the early 1800s, ranking tables (banzuke) became popular in Edo. Tofu cooking is mentioned in the Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke (日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Daily Frugal Cooking Method Competitive Ranking Table) which is in the same format as a sumo tournament flier. According to the table, there are two sides: Vegetable and Fish. The highest rank is Ozeki (大関). Under the Vegetable side, the Happai Tofu (八杯豆腐, Eight Cups Tofu) is ranked to Ozeki. Yaki Tofu (焼豆腐, Grilled Tofu) is ranked in the fourth rank of Sekiwake (関脇). Kinome Dengaku (木芽田楽, Baked Tofu with Sansho Tree-Sprout Miso Coating) is ranked in the fifth rank of Maegashira (前頭) in the spring section. Tofu related cuisines appeared a total of 15 times on the table.

Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Published by Yoshida-ya Shoukichi Shuppan. Early 1880. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Besides popular culture mentions of tofu, we can also see the prevalence of soy itself through Edo period edicts. Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Keian Ofuregaki (慶安御触書, Keian Edict) in 1649 for the control of farmers. The edict consists of 32 articles, which warn of luxury life by peasants, such as alcohol, tobacco, and rice. The edict also demands people to devote themselves to agriculture. In the fourth edict, soybean planting is mentioned in the form of so-called aze-mame (畔豆, ridge beans), in which soybeans are planted in the ridges of rice paddy fields. It states that peasants must plant soybeans and azuki beans between their rice fields and farms. It is interesting to note the contemporary understanding of legumes’ ability to reincorporate nitrogen back into the soil. Although the people of Edo knew no such knowledge, legume planting may have helped farmers overall crop yield and efficient use of land. As the 4th edict decreed:

“Focus on cultivation, and planting to rice fields and vegetable fields, and at the same time, focus on production and prevent weeds from growing. If you take care of weeds and always cultivate the land with a hoe, you can get good crops and a lot of harvest. Then, plant soybeans and azuki beans on the bank in the fields to increase the crop as much as possible” (Keian Ofuregaki).

In the 11th edict, it stated that after experiencing famine, peasants must eat soybean leaves, which was also mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari [料理物語, Tale of Cooking], perhaps the most prominent early cookbook in Edo Japan. From the context of the 11th edict, the peasants had rice in the autumn, but in the later months, they had millet. The Tale of Cooking is written to support the peasant’s menu:

“The peasants are not thinking well, and they have no idea about the future. In the autumn, they feed rice to their wives and children without thinking about the harvested rice. Always in January, February, and March, they take care of rice and eat millet, wheat, Awa millet, Hie millet, vegetables, radishes, and make more millets, and do not eat a lot of rice. Immediately after experiencing a famine, do not waste time throwing away soybean leaves, azuki leaves, cowpea leaves, deciduous leaves of potatoes, etc.” (Tales of Cooking).

Around 1695, tofu was sold by vendors sitting by the road. We do not know for sure when tofu was first sold by walking street vendors, but after a big fire in Edo in 1698, sellers of dengaku (skewered grilled tofu with a sweet miso topping) started to appear.

In 1634, the Tale of Cooking was published. This was during the early part of Edo and is often considered the first Japanese cookbook written mostly in plain, syllabic Japanese. Although the author is unknown, the epilogue states that “This one volume of this cooking book does not require knife skills. This is for ordinary people and there are no cooking rules. This teaching is from our ancestors. Since I wrote the story of people to date, it is called the tale of cooking.” As for tofu related recipes, there are only two mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari in section 12 on boiled foods: Ise Tofu (伊勢豆腐) and Ryori Tofu (料理豆腐):

“Ise tofu: First grate yam. Cut the sea bream and grate it. Add one-third of grated yam. Add the egg white into tofu and grate it. Grate them well together. Spread a cloth on a cedar box and wrap it. Put it in hot water, press it, and then cut it. Spread cloth on the cedar box. Put it into boiled water, hold, and cut. Serve with arrowroot and soy sauce. It is also very good to sprinkle with chicken miso or wasabi miso. Also, it is good to serve only the tofu. I sincerely report the above recipe” (Tales of Cooking, 183).

If we take a closer look at the recipes, we see that there is little to no information about measurements, sizes, or utensils that are required to actually prepare these dishes.

A distinct feature of the Tofu Hyakuchin that shows that the book was not strictly for the purpose of play are the detailed cut sizes, measurements, and cooking utensils, potentially allowing readers to follow and recreate the dish. For instructions of cutting Tofu in the 72nd recipe, it instructs readers to “remove the coarse cloth texture from the surface of a whole tofu and cut off the four corners of the tofu, then cut the newly formed corners to make an octagon. Cut that into five or six smaller pieces. Season using sake, salt, and soy sauce” (Tofu Hyakuchin, 28). Another example is in the 96th recipe, readers are asked to “cut tofu in 2.4cm x 2.4cm x1.2-1.5cm cubes. On one skewer, place three pieces. Follow recipe number two (Kiji-yaki dengaku), grill until golden brown. Once it is grilled, remove them from the skewer. Place them in a Raku-ware teapot with a lid. Pour on hot pepper-vinegar-miso and sprinkle poppy seeds on top” (35).

Other detailed measurements are also explained in the 56th recipe, for example, “mix grilled tofu and Fukusa miso in a 7:3 ratio. Pound the mixture with a kitchen knife until it is one solid piece. Make into desired size, and lightly fry them. Season to desired choice”(24).  In the 81st recipe, furthermore, “use silken tofu. Boil six parts water to one-part sake. Once it is boiling add one-part soy sauce and let it reach a boil again. Place tofu into the mixture. The length of simmering is the same as number 92 of Yu-yakko. Remove the tofu right before it starts to float. Serve with grated daikon radish” (31). The recipes in Tofu Hyakuchin are in simple, syllabic writing and basic characters, with detailed measurements, and are easy for the reader to understand the method of cooking. In addition, it is easy to visualize the dish just by reading the instructions.

Introducing New Cooking Utensils

In one Tofu Hyakuchin recipe, it shows a new innovation: a charcoal stove specifically for making Kinome-Dengaku in the first tofu recipe. To proliferate varieties of cooking, it is essential to develop and invent new cooking tools. In the book, a new baking charcoal stove is introduced made of ceramic, which allowed for portability and better heat transfer than previous grills, as well as accessibility to a wider audience than traditional metal or steel grills. “Recently,” the book notes, “a new product was released for grilling miso dengaku (skewered tofu with miso sauce). About 60 cm in length; The width is about 8 cm; About 6 cm deep. This is made of pottery and has a hole in the bottom. There are many 1.8 cm holes (12).

Newly invented charcoal brazier for dengaku. In Tofu Hyakuchin [豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes]. National Diet Library. (https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/2536494)

There are also many cooking utensils made of metal introduced in the Tofu Haykuchin. We can assume that hardware stores were popular in the Edo period and selling metal products allowed more access for people to cook food at a higher temperature. For example, in the 40th recipe, a wire mesh (金の籠, Kane no amikago) is introduced:

“Simmer light-soy sauce with sake and salt. In a separate pan, bring a large amount of oil to a boil. Cut tofu into flat cubes and place them on a wire mesh. Fry the tofu by shaking it 2-3 times inside the oil. Once fried, immediately place the fried tofu in the pot of simmering soy sauce”(21). 

The 54th recipe also uses a sieve made of metal: “To make the mashed potato, boil mountain yam very well. Remove excess water and sift through a metal sieve (銅飾, Kanasuhinou)” (24). Moreover, in the 57th recipe, a metal spoon (金匕, Kanesaji) is used to “simmer whole tofu in a pot with no liquid over small heat. Remove the liquid that comes out of the tofu with a metal ladle”(25). 

The recipe book also mentions a specially shaped long wooden box (つきだし, tsukidashi) in the 100th tofu recipe, which has about the same cross section as that of a block of tofu, with a handle on one end, a screen over the opposite exit end, and a wooden pusher, which is used to push a block of tofu into the box and through the screen, thereby creating tofu noodles.

“To cut the tofu, use the tube used to make tokoroten [gelatin jelly strips]. Use silk string to make grids on the end of the tube. Point the tube directly into lukewarm water. Push the tofu through the tube to make a noodle-like shape. Let the tofu submerge in water as you push it through. Even when serving 100 people, it is important to cut the tofu immediately before serving”(37-38). 

Examining the contents of the Tofu Hyakuchin, this cookbook was not just a hobby of a cultured person, but all recipes are easy to make, delicious, and still seen today. It introduced detailed cut size and specific measurements of ingredients. It also introduced cooking methods such as frying, steaming, and boiling that could be easily done with the new invention of high-heat cooking utensils. From the other popular culture materials and Tokugawa edicts regarding the development of soybean production, we can see the possible accessibility of tofu. This paper is not to discredit previous scholars on this subject, whom I greatly respect, but to complicate our understanding and analysis of Edo period cookbooks.


1 For the full text of Keian Ofuregaki, see: (http://sybrma.sakura.ne.jp/329keiannoohuregaki.html).

2 Recently, the Kenan Ofuregaki is considered forged document issued by the Edo Shogunate in 1649. It is believed that first issued in the territory of the Kofu domain in Kai Province in 1697, with the addition of a tradition that it is a curtain law of the Keian era. See, Yamamoto Eiji. Kenan no Furegagi wa dasaretaka (慶安の触書はだされたか). Tokyo: Yamakawa-shuppan, 2002.


Trusting the Grocer

By Benjamin R. Cohen

A word for the grocer, because before the recipe is the ingredient. To get the ingredient, you either grow it yourself or buy it at a store. Most of us buy it at a store. The grocer is the supplier.

At the supermarket, today’s worries over a reliable supply chain are often about availability and consistency. We are but consumers relying on others—producers—to meet our consumer needs. We expect producers to stock those shelves, whoever they are. It’s when the shelves are bare that we start to wonder, where does it all come from anyway? We think more about those bumper stickers asking us to know our farmer to know our food. But this is the exception, because the shelves are often fairly stocked. People benefit from and are beholden to a grocery infrastructure a century in the making.[1]

That infrastructure didn’t exist in the west in the nineteenth century. The worries over supplies then were not so much about consistency. Western customers had less expectation about what would always be on the shelves, what would always be in stock. They were more about worried over whether those supplies were what the grocer said they were.

It was the era of adulteration. Before the homemaker or housekeeper could buy supplies to cook the meals, she (often a she) had to trust that the grocer was selling her the real deal (I wrote a whole book about this, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, 2019/2022).

The era of adulteration was a period in western history when customers fretted over the honesty of their food’s identity. Adulterated meant contaminated, corrupted, or otherwise misrepresented food. Was that sugar cut with sand, was that milk watered down, was that butter really butter or some factory upstart called margarine — things like that. One way to get a sense of the prominence of the worries is that the reigning economic paradigm at the time was caveat emptor—buyer beware. Most North Americans had not yet established a regulatory infrastructure based on the premise that your food shouldn’t make you sick.

Distrusting the grocer, from “The Use of Adulteration,” Punch (August 4, 1855). Image in the Public Domain.

Granted, adulteration has always been with us, from biblical times to today: we always worry if our food is what the seller tells us it is. But the so-named ‘era of adulteration’ came about in large part because of a relatively quick transition in western supply chains across the second half of the nineteenth century. It came about because customs—the root word inside customer—were disrupted. The age-old ways people had come to trust food from the market were thrown into disarray.

Grocers in the west stood at the balance between customer and supplier, managing a store counter that had quite a lot of power. That might seem odd, since our grocery stores today don’t seem to have actual grocers. But that’s because most of us are comfortable with our self-service grocery stores, so much so that the term “self-service” rarely factors into the description. Before innovations at the Piggly Wiggly and A&P early in the twentieth century, grocery stores were grocers’ markets, and goods were delivered across a counter by the grocer himself.[2] The storekeeper stocked wares behind him and out of reach of the rabble so that groceries came to customers like prescription drugs from a drugstore counter. “Know your grocer know your food” may have been a carriage bumper sticker, for all I know.

The grocer at work, from the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., c. 1870–1900. Chromolithographed trade card. Printed by R. Ganton, Litho, London. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The word itself, grocer, descended from storekeepers in the Middle Ages who sold products in gross. For centuries, they were known as Spicers or Pepperers before their dealings in gross weights brought them the name Grosser (in the nineteenth century, French grocers were still called épicers, or spicers) The English spelling evolved by the time grocers were part of a food system that included not just the general or dry goods stores of rural livelihood, but public markets, butcheries, bakeries, and other specialty shops of the urban streets. The public market was, as the name would suggest, a public space. Grocers’ markets more often operated as private shops subject to their own self-decided operations. As rancor grew over customers’ fear they were being swindled, grocers professionalized to develop standards of practice and décor. They published manuals. They printed trade papers. They held conferences. One of their biggest challenges was to garner the faith of their customers. One reason their customers didn’t trust them was that oft-leveled accusation of adulteration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, whatever success they had in those efforts was eclipsed anyway with the new self-service markets. A century later, we take it for granted so much that our worries are whether the supply truck will deliver the goods from across the country or across the ocean every single day or not. Today’s equivalent worries over food identity may concern the source, the process, and the supplier, but, in a hyper-consumer capitalist culture, until there’s a global pandemic or a boat stuck in a canal, they are less about availability.

I admit I think of this history every time I go to the supermarket; every time I go to the farmer’s market; every time I remember Mr. Hooper or the grocer down the block from my childhood, Mr. Gordon, a last vestige, even then, of the neighborhood grocer. It isn’t nostalgia to appreciate the grocer — it’s historical indebtedness. A word for the grocer is a word of appreciation for an often-invisible agent in the middle of supply and demand.


[1] Given the problems of supermarket redlining (and the related food apartheid) and prevalence of food insecurity, I’m nodding here to an idealized gentrified western model, to be sure, and one that isn’t ideal in the same way to everyone.

[2] Susan Spellman’s (2016) Cornering the Market is a good source for more grocer history. Shane Hamilton’s (2018) Supermarket USA gives it a good scope of international relations.

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