Today we are protected by considerable and complex laws affecting our consumer rights. Food is labeled (albeit confusingly at times) with levels of fat, sugar, chemicals etc. There are directives about weight, sell by and use by dates and governing packaging and advertising. Caveat emptor applies to many things but not really to food.
In was very different in the early Victorian period when all sorts of things were added to food and other consumables to make them cheaper, sweeter, or more attractive. The 1800s saw an attempt to standardise food however, and to remove the poisons that were routinely used to adulterate things such as beer, milk and bread. The ever expanding bureaucracy of the Victorian state passed more and more pieces of legislation and hired inspectors to enforce them.
On occasion we can see the results of this in the Police Courts of the Metropolis.
In December 1876 Charles Theobald , a grocer with a shop at 20 Regent’s Street, was summoned before the magistrate at Westminster for selling butter that was not really butter.
Owen Williams, an officer of the Board of Works, had entered Theobald’s shop and asked for a pat of butter. Theobald’s 12 year-old son served the customer, and sold him a pound of butter.
Mr Williams explained to the court that he wanted the butter it for analysis and that what he thought he had been sold was ‘butterine’, not butter. This, he added, was not supposed to be sold ‘as the natural production from the cow’. Williams took it away for analysis by a Dr Du Pré who found that it was only 10 percent butter and 90 percent animal fats. What the Theobalds were selling was a butter substitute. There seems to have been nothing wrong with doing so so long as it was’t being sold as the superior dairy product.
Buttering seems to have been a successful product in the USA in the Edwardian period, most of the adverts (some of them terribly racist it has to be said) come from across the Atlantic. The first dictionary reference is just before the First World War, so the Theobalds may have been pioneers. It is certainly much older than ‘I can’t believe its not butter’ which has been manufactured by Unilever since the mid 1970s.
Charles Theobald explained that he had recently punched the shop and all its stock just 6 days earlier and his son had no idea that he was doing something wrong. He didn’t know that there was a different product, the buttering looked like butter after all. It was genuine mistake and would not occur again. Both he and his son were ‘perfectly innocent of any attempt at fraud, and any fraud lay with his predecessor’.
The magistrate accepted his word and cautioned him for the future, the summons was then dropped and the grocer was free to return to his new business.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 28, 1876]
NB if you are one of the growing number of regular readers of this blog I just wanted to say thank you. I started this as an exercise in keeping my research brain active on a daily basis; the fact that hundreds of people seem to find it interesting enough to dip into from time to time helps me keep it going.