Thursday, 21 March 2013

How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died.

Hat-tip to Prof. Tim Noakes, who recently tweeted the above study.

See How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died.

"The crude average figures often used to depict the brevity of Victorian lives mislead because they include infant mortality, which was tragically high. If we strip out peri-natal mortality, however, and look at the life expectancy of those who survived the first five years, a very different picture emerges. Victorian contemporary sources reveal that life expectancy for adults in the mid-Victorian period was almost exactly what it is today.
From 1875 on and especially after 1885, rising imports of cheap food basics were increasingly affecting the food chain at home. Imported North American wheat and new milling techniques reduced the prices of white flour and bread. Tinned meat arrived from the Argentine, Australia and New Zealand, which was cheaper than either home-produced or refrigerated fresh meat also arriving from these sources. Canned fruit and condensed milk became widely available.

This expansion in the range of foods was advertised by most contemporaries, and by subsequent historians, as representing a significant ‘improvement’ in the working class diet. The reality was very different. These changes undoubtedly increased the variety and quantity of the working class diet, but its quality deteriorated markedly. The imported canned meats were fatty and usually corned’ or salted. Cheaper sugar promoted a huge increase in sugar consumption in confectionery, now mass-produced for the first time, and in the new processed foods such as sugar-laden condensed milk, and canned fruits bathed in heavy syrup. The increased sugar consumption caused such damage to the nation’s teeth that by 1900 it was commonly noted that people could no longer chew tough foods and were unable to eat many vegetables, fruits and nuts [26]. For all these reasons the late-Victorian diet actually damaged the health of the nation, and the health of the working classes in particular.

The decline was astonishingly rapid..."

See also Who Lives Longest? (h/t to Melissa McEwen)


praguestepchild said...

I have no doubt about it, with the major factor in the late Victorian era being the wide spread use of processed sugar from the West Indies and Brazil.

Still, the paper mostly does a lot of hand-waving from what I can tell. Cancer and CHD were mostly undiagnosed in those days, I'm very skeptical that were practically non-existent.

I recall reading something on the Beeb about some War of Roses era soldiers that were discovered and their health that could be gleaned from skeletons was superior to the average Victorians (they were pretty big in stature IIRC). Although, who's to say how typical these soldiers were.

George Henderson said...

I've read earlier work like this and it's fascinating.
Arsenic was a major carcinogen in the mid-victorian era.
CHD was prevelant in Boer war draftees but it was probably the protein-deficient kind (plus incipient scurvy).
See this article on the changing face of war syndromes:

Nigel Kinbrum said...

@Sean: The mid-Victorians could diagnose solid cancers (probably not leukaemia) and could distinguish between heart failure & angina.

@George: By 1900, the rot had already set in. Things started to go downhill from 1875.

marie said...

It's interesting and I sure like what it says about what is a good diet, doesn't support what it says - basically, they have a maths problem :
By their own terminology they are looking at an 'island in time' of ample and good nutrition, a period of about 30-40 years, preceded by at least one well known 'starvation decade' and followed by a terrible decline in public health towards the latter quarter of the century. Well...for people living an average of 10 years longer at age 65 during that period (the authors' metric) it means they spent more than half their lives (the first half or more) Not eating that way. Similarly, any people born/raised during that period were living and dying during the great decline of the late 1800's. The period the authors are looking at is too short to allow their conclusions or rather, the vehemence of those conclusions (very polemic article overall). Still, intriguing.

Nigel Kinbrum said...

Hi Marie,

Up to 1875, food quality was fairly constant, though the quantity varied significantly over the years.

I'm guessing that the register of births & deaths showed that people were dying at an increasing age as living conditions improved, even though they had starved in their youth.