Category Archives: goldrush food

Life before plastic

parkesine

An example of 19th century nitrocellulose jewellery – if you rubbed it, it could explode! From Wikipedia Commons.

Many visiting students are shocked to learn that plastic didn’t exist in 19th century Australia. The Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750, encouraged the creation of many products which could be mass-produced in the newly-invented factories. Some plastic-like products – like fake ivory jewellery – were being produced as early as the 1860s, but the nitrocellulose from which they were made was extremely dangerous. Wikipedia says ‘When dry, nitrocellulose is explosive and can be ignited with heat, spark, or friction’! Therefore, the development of modern plastics (largely made from the fossil fuel crude oil) is a 20th century story. So how did people survive without plastic in the 1800s?

At Sovereign Hill, we have numerous garbage and recycling bins so our visitors can dispose of their rubbish responsibly, but these didn’t really exist in 19th century Ballarat. Before cheap plastics and paper (paper was expensive before we began making it entirely from wood pulp in factories), people rarely produced household waste. Items were reused and often re-purposed, and when they eventually fell apart, they would be disposed of in the fireplace or in the garden where most would biodegrade. Let’s describe a typical (European) family home’s production of waste over a normal goldrush day here in Ballarat to compare and contrast it to a family’s waste output today.

The family wakes at dawn (clocks were made of metal and were therefore expensive, so most people were woken by the sun). Their bedsheets were mass-produced in Manchester, England, from cotton shipped from the United States of America, and their woollen blankets were made in Bradford, England, from wool shipped from Victoria. If they were wealthy, they might also own a hand-made possum-skin rug, bought from the Wadawurrung people – these were sold on the Ballarat diggings for the equivalent of $4000-$5000 in today’s money! All of these items were made to last, and once they had reached the end of lives as sheets and blankets, they would be made into clothes or nappies (most 21st century nappies are made of plastic), used to stuff pillows, or as cleaning rags.

manchester from kersal moor by edward goodall c.1850

An industrial city indeed, full of cotton-spinning factories. Manchester from Kersal Moor, by Edward Goodall, c.1850. From Wikipedia Commons.

The house would be warmed by lighting a fire in the fireplace. This is also where the family meal would be prepared. Today, our energy is produced hundreds of kilometres away, by burning fossil fuels like coal or harnessing the energy of wind through turbines. Their fire fuel – wood – would be cut down from a nearby forest. Even the ash from the fire found other uses in 19th century Australia; ash could be used to make soap, polish metals, keep snails off the lettuce, fertilise the garden, or be used in the outhouse (also known as a ‘dunny’)!

clarke bros

Clarke Bros. Grocers at Sovereign Hill – sometimes we have to wrap food in plastic for safety reasons, even though it isn’t historically accurate.

A breakfast would be prepared using food grown in the garden, or bought at the local grocer’s (the supermarket wasn’t invented for another 70 years!). Most store-bought food would be sold wrapped in paper (often wax paper), or perhaps even weighed and placed immediately into the family’s cooking pot (made of local iron from Lal Lal) or bucket (often made of cheap leather at this time). Only (relatively expensive) preserves like jam or mustard would be sold in glass jars or ceramic (clay) pots. After the meal, food scraps would be used again in cooking (bones for making broth/soup) or fed to the family chickens/pigs/goats/dog. The wax paper would be reused to wrap other foods until it disintegrated (the invention of Tuppaware was nearly 100 years off) and it would then be thrown in the fire. Jars or ceramic pots would be saved for another household purpose. The plates used to eat such a meal would have most likely been made in Staffordshire, England from nearby natural clays, and then shipped (by wind/steam power) to Australia. Drinking water was collected from local rivers and groundwater pumps.

If children were lucky enough to be sent to school, there they would learn the ‘3 R’s’ (reading, writing, and arithmetic) using slate boards and graphite pencils (which would last many generations of students) in the younger years, and after Grade 4 would begin using paper, ink, and dip pens (but only if they passed the Grade 3 writing test – paper was too expensive to make inky mistakes on!). For most children except the very wealthy, 19th century toys were typically handmade from wood or animal bones (which are all biodegradable materials, unlike plastic). As school uniforms were yet to be invented, children simply wore their normal clothes to school.

howmuchclothingwasted

Clothes waste in the 21st century – a big problem because much of it will never biodegrade. From Wikipedia Commons.

While cloth for making things like sheets and clothing was getting cheaper in price thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most people – including children – merely owned two to three outfits at any one time. The wardrobe only became common in houses in the 20th century when ready-to-wear clothing became fashionable and was being produced very cheaply. Therefore, in the 19th century your clothing was cared for, and carefully patched and refitted, until the fabric disintegrated. Clothing was most commonly made of cotton (or sometimes other biodegradable natural fibres like wool or silk), whereas today lots of the clothing in your wardrobe is made of plastic.

While the children were at school, and wives/mothers busied themselves with 19th century housewifery, men would be at work. Most men in Ballarat worked in the goldmining industry, or in another industry that supported mining, such as a candleworks or foundry. These types of workplaces produced some waste (but nothing in comparison to most industries today!), and while some was biodegradable, some industrial waste from the 19th century is still causing pollution to Ballarat’s soil and waterways today (like arsenic from mining). The safety clothes men wore (if any!) were made from thick leather and would often last their entire working lives.

At lunch time, family members would return home for a hot meal prepared by the woman of the house. If the wife/mother had found the time to visit the grocer, baker, or butcher (all selling food produced locally – refrigeration wasn’t invented yet, so only dry food like flour, lentils and herbs could travel vast distances), she may have fresh food to serve the family. Otherwise, people ate preserved foods like salted meat, stewed fruits or re-hydrated beans. Fizzy drinks were invented in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that mass-produced glass and good sealing techniques made these beverages widely available. Dinner would be similar to lunch, and any leftovers would be saved for the next meal.

At night, candles made from animal fat (called tallow) would be lit if the family could afford it. Soap was also made from animal fat at this time. Again, today your candles and soaps are most commonly made of petrochemicals (taken from crude oil, the same as plastic).

PreCutProduce

A typical sight at the supermarket today – food wrapped in plastic. From Wikipedia Commons.

So, no plastic for covering or storing food, no plastic for toys, no clothes made from plastic, and no plastic safety wear at work. No drinks in plastic bottles, no plastic bags to carry the groceries, and no plastic pens and rulers etc. for school. This meant there was no need for weekly bin collections – because there were no bins! Life certainly was different in the 1850s.

Links and References

What is plastic?: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic

The history of waste management: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_waste_management

An ABC Catalyst episode on the arsenic in Ballarat’s soil: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2843289.htm

A 4-part vlog on life as an 1850s woman produced by Sovereign Hill: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/students/video/woman-of-the-hill/

A great documentary series about the history of the rooms of our houses (and many of the items you can find in them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrn42rvTlpk

How to cook a gold rush feast

Supermarkets, refrigeration, and the food pyramid were invented a long time after the Victorian gold rushes of the 1850s. During this time in history, most food on the goldfields was either grown fresh in your garden, imported in a dried state (like rice, flour and lentils), or pickled/preserved (like jams, stewed fruit and tinned anchovies). Some bush foods were hunted down by miners or supplied to them by Aboriginal people, but most new arrivals to the diggings had to work hard for their dinner. The rich could afford healthier diets than the poor, but life expectancy (the average length of time that people live in a particular country) was quite low in comparison to Australia today. Poor nutrition, dangerous work and deadly diseases worked together to make life on the diggings relatively short and harsh.

life-expectancy

Australians now live much longer lives than they did during the 19th century thanks to improved diets and medicine. This graph shows how life expectancy has increased for both men and women between 1884 and 2009. Reproduced with permission of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

butchers-shambles-by-st-gill

S. T. Gill’s sketch of a ‘Butcher’s Shamble’ from 1869 demonstrates life before refrigeration and modern hygiene.

Most miners in 1850s Ballarat happily ate damper (campfire bread) and mutton (old sheep – ‘lamb’ means young sheep), as such a meat-heavy diet was only affordable to the rich back in Europe at this time. However, this diet isn’t very nutritious. It lacks important vitamins and minerals that the body needs, which can be found in fruit, vegetables and nuts. While such a limited diet will keep you alive, it can make your body – brains, bones, organs – age must faster than people who eat a broader range of foods. A diet of damper and mutton could make you more likely to get sick, and you would stay sicker for longer. However, the goldfields butcher wasn’t too worried about the nutrition of his customers – butchers were often the richest people on the diggings!

The reason sheep were so common on the diggings was because of Victoria’s earlier history of colonisation. The first European settlers/invaders, who arrived from 1835 onwards, were here on the grassy plains of Victoria to farm sheep. By 1851, the year the Australian gold rushes began, there were over 6 million sheep being farmed across the state (according to the National Wool Museum). The sheep farmers (often called ‘squatters’) realised that instead of boiling down their old sheep for tallow (fat for making soap/candles), they could sell them as food to the thousands of hungry miners. News of cheap meat on the Victorian goldfields attracted thousands of people to the diggings (Blainey, G. Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Books Australia, 2003, p.197). Luckily, by the 1860s, the gold rushes had also attracted many Chinese miners, who used their farming experience to grow productive market gardens full of nutritious vegetables which would have improved the general health of many Victorians at this time.

alloo

S. T. Gill’s ‘John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant’ sketch from 1855 demonstrates the many contributions the Chinese made to diggers’ diet during the Ballarat gold rush. Reproduced with permission of the Gold Museum, Ballarat.

If a man had brought his mother/wife/daughter with him to the diggings, he was bound to have a better diet than a single man. Many goldrush women in the 1850s came to Ballarat very well prepared, as they brought bags of seeds and small animals with them to ensure the family didn’t starve (Isaacs, J. Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1990, p.100).

Cooks didn’t use many utensils when creating meals over a camp fire, but a simple mixing bowl, knife and camp oven (also known as a Dutch oven) were all one needed for baking bread, roasting a leg of lamb, or making stews/soups. Next time you go camping, you could try cooking like a goldrush miner!

Here are some of our favourite 1850s goldrush recipes which you could try at home or school:

dampereggsp-soup2e-soup2dumplings

Links and References

Sovereign Hill’s other blogposts about goldrush food: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/03/19/what-was-eaten-on-the-goldfields/

https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/04/15/what-was-eaten-on-the-goldfields-part-2/#more-1069

SBS Gold on goldrush food: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=66

Goldrush food: http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00116b.htm

A great video about 19th century British diets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5dr8WSPhzw

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), maybe the most famous cookbook of all time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs_Beeton%27s_Book_of_Household_Management

The British Library on food of the 1800s: http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1800s2/18002.html

19th century menus: https://19thct.com/2012/08/11/a-menu-from-the-early-19th-century/

The most dangerous jobs in the 19th century: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glfVNlwv8bQ

Life for women on the early Ballarat goldfield: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf

Another webpage about the lives of goldrush women: http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00115b.htm

Changing mealtimes and their names in history: http://backinmytime.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/a-bit-about-meals.html

Fantastic BBC food in history documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7FRQjdSHWk

Blainey, G. Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Books Australia, 2003.

Isaacs, J. Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1990.