The English social reformer and writer, Henry Mayhew’s seminal work London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those that Will Work, Those that Cannot Work, Those that Will Not Work (1851) has provided us with several interesting stories in the past, and we are going to hear from him again today.
A large part of his monumental book relates to the vendors of food in the streets of London, and as it is the time of year for gingerbread – especially in the form of gingerbread houses and gingerbread men – we are going to find out how it was sold in the 1850’s. The article is interesting in so many ways – and it includes a recipe for ‘street’ gingerbread too.
Of the Street Sellers of Gingerbread Nuts &c.
The sale of gingerbread, as I have previously observed, was much more extensive in the streets than it is at present. Indeed, what was formerly known in the trade as "toy" gingerbread is now unseen in the streets, except occasionally, and that only when the whole has not been sold at the neighbouring fairs, at which it is still offered. But, even at these fairs, the principal, and sometimes the only, toy gingerbread that is vended is the "cock in breeches;" a formidable-looking bird, with his nether garments of gold. Twenty or thirty years ago, "King George on horseback" was popular in gingerbread. His Majesty, wearing a gilt crown, gilt spurs, and a gilt sword, bestrode the gilt saddle of his steed, and was eaten with great relish by his juvenile subjects. There were also sheep, and dogs, and other animals, all adorned in a similar manner, and looking as if they had been formed in close and faithful imitation of children's first attempts at cattle drawing. These edible toys were then sold in "white,"' as well as in "brown" gingerbread, the white being the same in all other respects as the brown, except that a portion of sugar was used in its composition instead of treacle.
There are now only two men in London who make their own gingerbread-nuts for sale in the streets. This preparation of gingerbread is called by the street-sellers, after a common elliptical fashion, merely "nuts." From the most experienced man in the street trade I had the following account: he was an intelligent, well-mannered, and well-spoken man, and when he laughed or smiled, had what may be best described as a pleasant look. After he had initiated me into the art and mystery of gingerbread making—which I shall detail separately —he said,
"I've been in the 'nut' trade 25 years, or thereabouts, and have made my own nuts for 20 years of that time. I bought of a gingerbread baker at first—there was plenty of them in them days — and the profit a living profit, too. Certainly it was, for what I bought for 5s. I could sell for 16s. I was brought up a baker, but the moment I was out of my time I started in the street nut trade for myself. I knew the profits of it, and thought it better than the slavery of a journeyman baker's life. You've mentioned, sir, in your work, a musical sort of a street-crier of gingerbread, and I think, and indeed I'm pretty certain, that it's the same man as was my partner 20 years back; aye, more than 20, but I can't tell about years." [The reader will have remarked how frequently this oblivion as to dates and periods characterises the statements of street-sellers. Perhaps no men take less note of time.] "At that time he was my partner in the pig trade. Dairy-fed, d'you say, sir? Not in the slightest . The outsides of the hanimals was paste, and the insides on 'em was all mince-meat. Their eyes was currants. We two was the original pigs, and, I believe, the only two pigs in the streets. We often made 15s. between us, in a day, in pigs alone. The musical man, as you call him—poor fellow, he dropped down dead in the street one day as he was crying; he was regular worn out—cried himself into his grave you may say—poor fellow, he used to sing out
'Here's a long-tailed pig, and a short-tailed pig,
And a pig with a curly tail:
Here's a Yorkshire pig, and a Hampshire pig,
And a pig without e'er a tail.'
"When I was first in the trade, I sold twice as many nuts as I do now, though my nuts was only 12 a penny then, and they're now 10. A little larger the 12 were, but not very much. I have taken 20s. and 24s. many and many a Saturday. I then made from 2l [pounds] to 2l, 10s. a week by sticking to it, and money might have been saved. I've taken between 7l and 8l at a Greenwich Fair in the three days, in them times, by myself. Indeed, last Easter, my wife and me—for she works as well as I do, and sells almost as much—took 5l. But gingerbread was money in the old times, and I sold 'lumps' as well as 'nuts;' but now lumps won't go off— not in a fair, no how. I've been in the trade ever since I started in it, but I've had turns at other things. I was in the service of a Customhouse agency firm; but they got into bother about contrabands, and the revenue, and cut off to America—I believe they took money with them, a good bit of it—and I was indicted, or whatever they call it, in the Court of Exchequer—I never was in the Court in my life—and was called upon, one fine day, to pay to the Crown 1,580l and some odd pounds and shillings besides! I never understood the rights of it, but it was about smuggling. I was indicted by myself, I believe. When Mr. Candy, and other great houses in the City, were found out that way, they made it all right; paid something, as I've heard, and sacked the profits. Well; when I was called on, it wasn't, I assure you, sir—ha, ha, ha!—at all convenient for a servant—and I was only that—to pay the fifteen hundred and odd; so I served 12 months and 2 days in prison for it. I'd saved a little money, and wasn't so uncomfortable in prison. I could get a dinner, and give a dinner. When I came out, I took to the nuts. It was lucky for me that I had a trade to turn to; for, even if I could have shown I wasn't at all to blame about the Exchequer, I could never have got another situation —never. So the streets saved me: my nuts was my bread.
"At this present time, sir, if I make, the year through, 9s. a week, and my wife 1s. or 2s. less, that's the extent . When the Queen opened Parliament, the two on us took 10s. The Queen's good for that, anyhow, in person. If the opening was by proclamation" [so he called it, three or four times], "it wouldn't have been worth while going to—not at all. If there's not a crowd, the police interfere, and 'move on!' is the order. The Queen's popular with me, for her opening Parliament herself. I count it her duty. The police are a great trouble. I can't say they disturb me in the place (never mind mentioning it, sir) where you've seen me, but they do in other places. They say there's no rest for the wicked; but, in the streets, there's no rest for a man trying to make an honest living, as I'm sure I do. I could pitch anywhere, one time.
"My chief dependence is on working-men, who buys my nuts to take home to their young 'uns. I never sell for parties, or desserts, that I know of. I take very little from boys—very little. The women of the town buy hardly any of me. I used to sell a good many pigs to them, in some of the streets about Brunswick-square; kept misses, and such like—and very pleasant customers they was, and good pay: but that's all over now. They never 'bated me—never."
To make about 56 lbs. of the gingerbread-nuts sold by my informant, takes 28 lbs. of treacle, 7s.; 48 lbs. of flour, 14s.; ½ lb. of ginger, 4d.; and ½ lb. of allspice, 4d. From 18 to 20 dozen of small nuts go to the pound. This quantity, at 40 a penny, reckoning 18 dozen to a pound, realises about 5d. per pound; or about 25s. for an outlay of 11s. 8d. The expense of baking, however, and of "appurtenances," reduces the profit to little more than cent, per cent .
The other nut-sellers in the streets vend the "almond nuts." Of these vendors there are not less than 150; of them, 100 buy their goods of the bakers (what they sell for 1s. costing them 4d.), and the other 50 make their own. The materials are the same as those of the gingerbread, with the addition of 4 lbs. of butter, 3d. per lb.; 1 lb. of almonds, 1s. 4d.; and 2 lbs. of volatile salts, 8d. Out of this material, 60 lbs. of "almond nuts" may be made. A split almond is placed in the centre of each of these nuts; and, as they are three times as large as the gingerbread nuts, 12 a penny is the price. To sell 36 dozen a day—and so clearing 2s.—is accounted a "very tidy day's work." With the drawback of wet weather, the average weekly earnings of the almond nut-sellers are, perhaps, the same as the gingerbread nut man's — 9s. weekly. These almond nut-sellers are, for the most part, itinerant, their localities of sale being the same as in the "cake and tart" line. They carry their goods, neatly done up in paper, on trays slung from the shoulder. The gingerbreadnuts are carried in a large basket, and are ready packed in paper bags.
Some of the "almond" men call at the public-houses, but the sale in such places is very small. Most of those who make their own nuts have been brought up as bakers—a class of workmen who seem to resort and adapt themselves to a street trade more readily than others. The nuts are baked in the usual way, spread on tin trays. To erect a proper oven for the purpose costs about 5l., but most of the men hire the use of one.
I have already specified the materials required to make 56 lb. of gingerbread nuts, the cost being 11s. 3d. To that, the capital required to start in the business must be added, and this consists of basket, 6s.; baize cloth, 1s.; pan for dough, 1s.; rolling-pin, 3d., and baking-tins, 1s. In all about 21s. To begin in a small way in the "almond" line, buying the nuts ready made, requires as capital: tray, 2s.; leather strap, 6d.; baize, 1s.; stock-money, 1s. 6d.—in all 5s. The sale is prosecuted through the year, but hot weather is unfavourable to it, as the nuts then turn soft.
Calculating that 150 of these street-dealers take 17s. each weekly (clearing 9s.), we find 6,630l. spent yearly in "spice" nuts in the streets of London.
Previous stories from Mayhew about street vendors of food: