Food and Drink

Objects used for eating and drinking

The period 1870-1920 witnessed an explosion in packaging, with glass and metal constituting the fastest growing stream of waste. In 1870, soups, sauces, beef tea, ginger beer, jams, jellies and chutneys were made at home; by 1920 all were sold in glass or metal containers.  The growth of disposable income among the working classes increased the consumption of new products, which reduced the labour of food preparation and introduced variety to an otherwise plain diet. In 1870 the only waste from food preparation was organic scraps and bones, but by 1920 bucket loads of packaging in the form of jars, bottles, tins, packets, cartons and wrapping had to be carted away. Some vessels were re-used, or returned for the deposit: this was especially true of wine bottles, jam jars and stoneware. But these were a minority; plenty were thrown away. In 1901 a family got through a 3lb jar of jam in little over a week. The less jam that was made at home, the more jars were discarded.

Flat-bottomed Hamilton

In 1870 the recipe for ginger beer involved lemons, sugar and boiling water (as did the recipe for lemonade). Soon, however, a bottle of either could be bought for a penny. Alternatively, a bottle of concentrate for making a large quantity could be had for four and a half pence from a company such as Foster Clark’s of Maidstone or Mason’s of Nottingham, who also sold wine essences. To make beef tea in 1870, one boiled up scraps from a joint; but by 1910, customers were choosing from a range of extracts sold in little brown bottles with names such as Bovril, Oxo and Vimbos.

None of these bottles was useful when empty. Nor were the pots and tins containing meats, soup, and bone marrow extract. Firms became inventive, marketing hot drinks (Horlicks), bottled tea and coffee, biscuits and breakfast cereals. Milk came in bottles by 1920. Butter, previously cut from a slab, began to appear in weighed wrapped portions.

Improvements in railways and shipping and in the manufacture of packaging itself made it ever more affordable for companies to deliver a variety of products to retail outlets nationwide. The competition for market share led to diversification and a wonderful array of advertising designs in the form of brand names, trademarks, adverts and promotional chromolithographs. Packaging increasingly functioned to tempt the customer, even to advertise other products. The very act of disposing of it was a stimulus to buying more, and so the cycle of waste-making continued.