THE BREAD REFORM LEAGUE was founded in 1880 by May (Mary Anne) Yates, an amateur artist and member of the Ladies' Sanitary Association. On a visit to Sicily she had admired the fine physique of the peasants who lived principally on brown bread, and contrasted their vigour with the ill-health she saw in English towns, especially among poor children. Her conclusion that white bread, the staple food of the working classes, was a principal cause of malnutrition, led her to renounce her artistic career, sell her jewellery, and devote the next forty years to changing British tastes from white bread to brown.
The movement reflected some new concerns about the state of the nation in the late nineteenth century. Britain's industrial supremacy was being challenged by the rise of competitors, especially Germany and the United States, and unemployment rates grew steeply, even among skilled workers. Poverty was suddenly on social and political agendas, its causes and extent carefully mapped by the researches of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree. To many, it seemed incredible that around a third of the inhabitants of London, the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world, should have less than 21 shillings (1.05p [pounds sterling]) a week to feed, house and clothe a family. The Bread Reform League's response to these anxieties was a very traditional one--that the poor were, at least in part, the victims of their own errors by spending their meagre earnings in wasteful and harmful ways--but it gave the message a new direction by attacking, not luxuries, but the staff of life itself.
Bread was the largest item in working-class budgets, supplying around half of energy needs. Average consumption was 6.71b per person, per week, but in poor families it was almost the only food eaten by women and children: men monopolised any meat available, a custom tacitly accepted as the prerogative of the 'breadwinner'. By 1880 British loaves were almost universally made of white wheaten flour. White bread had become a marker of superior social status in Tudor times. Its whiteness was achieved by sifting out the darker fragments of the stone-ground grain through linen and, later, silk gauzes. About 80 per cent of the grain was retained, whereas brown wholemeal and 'household' flours extracted 90 per cent or more from the grain, including considerable amounts of bran and germ, the most nutritious part. The preference for white flour, supposedly a symbol of purity, spread from London to the provinces in the eighteenth century, and by the early nineteenth century had been adopted almost everywhere, by all classes.
The universal taste for white bread was due partly to a trickle-down process of social imitation. But more significant were changes in working-class diet that reduced the availability of meat and dairy products and increased dependence on the cheapest filling food available, bread. By a remarkable inversion of the former pattern, white bread and tea, originally the luxuries of the privileged, became the staple food of the poor. White bread had distinct practical advantages over the coarser brown. It was lighter in texture, more easily digested and, above all, more palatable without the addition of expensive foods like meat or butter. And by the 1860s white flour was often cheaper than brown because millers could profitably market the 'offals' (grain residues) as animal feeding-stuff, and had no economic incentive to mill to a high extraction rate.
Far from being pure, the extreme whiteness of flour was due to adulteration. From the eighteenth century, alum salts had been used to whiten flour, especially cheaper grades, and when Dr A.H. Hassall, chief analyst of the Sanitary Commission of The Lancet, tested the composition of foods in the 1850s he found that every loaf of London bread he sampled was adulterated in this way. After the passing of the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875) and the appointment of Public Analysts, this practice was suppressed, and by the 1880s only occasional cases of adulteration were reported. …