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“Where Does it All Come From”

Page history last edited by Patrick Manning 11 years, 6 months ago


Where Does it All Come From?

The Times[1] lately, in one of its leading articles, shows in a clear and happy style how “the variety of distant regions by which our every-day comforts and luxuries are supplied is a geographical lesson familiar to our earliest infancy.” Our contemporary proceeds to tell us how the child knows that the tea it is drinking comes from China[2], that the coffee is grown by Arabs[3], the sugar extracted from the cane in Jamaica, or by the banks of the Ganges[4].  And thus going cleverly over the breakfast-table, the writer intimates the distant and different sources[5] of the materials and the accessories of our ordinary morning’s meal.

            This is all quite true of children belonging to persons in easy and respectable circumstances; but supposing the case to be that of some poor infant who has been all its life a witness and a participator in the parental makeshifts, “dodges,” and degradations that poverty and bad management will render necessary, the article we allude to would have run somewhat as follows: --

            “The child knows that tea it is drinking came from the bushes of Fulham[6], and has probably had half the twigs of a birch broom amalgamated with the pound of damaged Pekoe[7] that formed the foundation of the contents of the Chinese-looking chest in the window of the Lambeth[8] grocer.  Its coffee was made ponderous by heavy chicory[9], and its sugar was partly extracted from the cask and party from the box containing sand, of whose coarseness the Libyan desert might fairly feel ashamed.  The morning milk has acquired its present snowy whiteness and cream-like consistency from the combined contributions of the distant chalk-pit, the neighbouring pump, and the local cow.  The material of the tea-kettle came from the tin mines of Cornwall[10], it was manufactured in Birmingham[11], and had dangled at the door of the Little Dustpan[12] in Holborn[13], with a ticket inscribed, ‘Look here!  You can’t believe it, I daresay; but it’s a fact – only ninepence[14],’ appended to the handle.  The spoon was part of that metal to which Britannia[15] has lent her ennobling name; the blade of the knife came from the New Cut[16] – a guarantee for the sharpness of the instrument—and the haft was boned from some animal who never saw the owner of the weapon.  The tablecloth has been a constant traveler up and down the connecting spout between freedom and captivity in the establishment of the pawnbroker, and the carpet is redolent of Venetian romance.  The child’s frock has passed through the cotton mills of Lancashire, the mangles of Middlesex[17], and the washing-tubs of London, until its colours have flown; and indeed there is no limit to the number of ingenious speculations that the contents of any apartment, however humble, might not suggest.”



Editor’s Commentary

In this article, the author conflates colonial and domestic geography with consumer goods.  Even as the article challenges the narrative offered by the Times, it simultaneously reconstructs it in such way that demonstrates the unequal share of the wealth of colonialism.  It does so, however, by redrawing the lines of the Times article.  Whereas the middle and upper class children receive an education of the immense British empire’s geographical reaches, the lower classes get a similar education only within the English nation-state itself.  The implication, of course, is not that the “world-as-British-marketplace” model is itself wrong.  On the contrary, it is desirable, and should be available to every British citizen of every class: in the hierarchy of commodities identified in the article, domestics are figured below colonial imports.

Tea becomes a primary object representative of the ambivalence of Englishness, an identity predicated upon foreignness.  Tea—like other imported goods—is emphatically not of Britain.  However, as the article suggests, these commodities produce an “English” identity: “the distant and different sources of the materials and the accessories of our ordinary morning’s meal.”  Even as the article questions it because of its classism, it also identifies it as central to the “ordinary”—the exotic, distant, different places of the empire, through commodification, become ways of being British.

This parallels in many ways the ways in which people from around the empire serve the conceptualization of an English identity, an identity which consumes the Other while simultaneously and necessarily not the Other.  If it is not too much of a stretch, perhaps we can examine the similar ways in which Bertha becomes a commodity within the social economy of Jane Eyre.  By returning to Europe with Bertha, Mr. Rochester both contains the threat and distances himself from it, emphasizing an essential difference, a difference of nature, between the maniacal and the European.  In this case, as with the parallel case of consumer goods, the thing which is outside—whether a racial other or an imported product—constructs and reinforces an identity or cultural, racial, societal superiority, an identity which is fictive and precarious.

But, this is not to ignore the very obvious concern over class issues in Victorian England that the Punch article demonstrates.  Certainly progressive, the article highlights the difficulties and struggles of the work class in direct distinction to the comforts of the middle class.  Presumably, the article’s audience is the middle class – the working class would already be aware of the issues being raised.  The intention, then, can only be action where there is inaction: primarily, it seems that the article is concerned with the sanitary and fair trade in food goods, to end such harmful and unfair practices as cutting coffee with chicory.  The problems of the working class are delivered, then, into the hands of the middle class.

This movement from working class affairs to middle class action maintains class distinctions and hierarchies even as it works to alleviate the struggles of the lower classes.  The article, as it presents the issue of food safety to the middle class, arguably assumes a largely inactive, inattentive, ill-equipped working class.  Not to discount any relative social clout a middle class holds over a working class population, but I mean only to highlight the way in which setting up a structure in which the middle class, distinct and separate, must assist the working class depends upon a structure in which the middle class is always-already superior to a working class. 

Consider, for example, another conflation of class struggle, middle class ethos and imperial products: “Tea and Talk” in Harriet Martineau’s Cousin Marshall.  In this chapter, Ms. Burke and her brother Mr. Burke discuss the most effective way to assist the deserving poor over an evening tea.  The scene is certainly didactic, but its staging as fiction positions the discussion of working class woes into the realm of middle class concerns.  While the tea is not the only feature demonstrating the Burke’s class position, it is certainly a dominant sign.  And, although the middle class is not the only class with access to tea later, this novella was published a year before the East India’s Company monopoly over tea imports ended in 1833, thus suggesting that tea was not as readily available as it would be in later years (see note 8 above).  So, the presence of tea emphasizes class distinctions.  This discussion, then, demonstrates a belief in the incapable poor, a population of poor people unable to help themselves and a middle class who was responsible for providing that aid.  The conversation denies a voice to the working poor and instead re-establishes it in a discourse of difference, a discourse which is largely depicted through the material goods of the Burke’s compared to the Marshall’s or the Bell’s or the other working class people.

Not only, then, does the article represent a conflation of geography with imperial commodities, but also access to those same commodities as defining class difference.  This act of differentiation maintains the existing hierarchies, whether across the imperial globe or within England’s own class divisions.  This influx of foreign commodities become a central component of England, and finds expression through the literature of the period.



Works Cited and Consulted

Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2008.

Brontё, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Literary Press, 2002.

Broomfield, Andrea. Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

Fromer, Julie E. A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2008.

Martineau, Harriet. Cousin Marshall. London: William Clowes, 1832.

Nead, Lynda. Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc. January – June 1878. http://books.google.com/books?id=JGEEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA357&lpg=PA357&dq=little+dustpan+holborn&source=web&ots=YjFn_7mo71&sig=eHehNLT1RR3FzGfUJCm2ITFk_YA&hl=en&ei=XjCXScHHMYT8NPWmpfgL&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA1,M1.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870. New York: St. Martin’s P, 2005.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang. London: Routledge, 2000. p 252.

Searle, G.R. Morality and The Market in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1998.

Stern, Rebecca. Home Economics: Domestic Fraud in Victorian England. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008.

[1] A daily national newspaper published in the United Kingdom since 1785.

[2] England began importing tea from China through the East India Company in the 1650s; although at first an expensive and luxury good, tea eventually became a staple of Victorian England consumption.  See “Tea, a Necessary Luxury: Culture, Consumption, and Identity” in Fromer’s A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England.

[3] Coffee was imported to Britain largely through the East India Company.  According to Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families published in 1856 as discussed in Picard’s Victorian London, coffee becomes a necessity of dinner parties of the middle and upper classes, and making the perfect cup of coffee is something to be striven for by all middle-class housewives.  However, coffee, much like tea, became not just an item associated with the upper-classes, but with Englishness itself, and as such also with the working classes.  See Broomfield, Food and Cooking, page 25.

[4] Sugar was a major export of the British Caribbean, specifically Barbados and Jamaica.  Previously imported from Northern Africa, sugar became much more affordable since it was imported from British colonies.  See pages 9-11 of Broomfield’s Food and Cooking in Victorian England.

[5] Here, we see an interesting conflation of consumerism and colonialism, in which the globe is understood in terms of a consumer culture, and the ‘discipline’ of geography becomes an act of imperialism itself, to inscribe the “distant lands” into an English sensibility, i.e., consumerism.  See “Editor’s Commentary” for further discussion.

[6] Fulham was a neighborhood in southwest London consisting of working-class people, and known as a place of debauchery.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulham#History.

[7] Pekoe was a tea imported from China and associated with the upper classes.  Chinese tea imports greatly increased after the East India Company’s monopoly on the tea trade ended in 1833.  Competition led to a decrease in prices of tea.  Despite lower prices, tea was routinely mixed with other substances and/or treated to appear better than it was.  See pages 63-64 in Broomfield’s Food and Cooking in Victorian England.

[8] Lambeth is a neighborhood in south London.  Lambeth was a low-lying neighborhood, and thus susceptible to flooding with high tides raised the water level of the Thames.  See page 9 in Picard’s Victorian London. The Embankment, a sanitation project built along the river to purify it, was also seen as a place where the poor people of Lambeth could promenade on the weekends, suggesting a lower class population in this area of London.  See pages 66-68 in Allen’s Cleansing the City.

[9] Chicory, an herb native to Europe, was ground and used as a coffee substitute; it was cheaper, partly due to the fact that it was a native plant and thus duty free.  See “Chapter 8: The Working Class” in Picard’s Victorian London.

[10] According to Broomfield “more [tin] mines than workers was the Victorian-era norm” (162).  She discusses the Cornish tin mines in regards to food, celebrations, etc.  She notes that the workers were lower class workers but maintained many of the food “traditions”, like tea, as the middle class people of London.

[11] In the 19th century, Birmingham became a center of manufacturing in England.  See page 14 of Food and Cooking.

[12] According to “Notes and Queries” a collection of notes by London librarians the Little Dustpan “was the sign of a general ironmongery shop in High Holborn, close to Museum Street.”  It continues: “It was opened in opposition to a then famed house hard by known [sic] as " The Big Dustpan." The date was prior to the opening of New Oxford Street, about 1830-1. The clue I have to this date is memory of a famous waxwork show within a few doors of ‘The Little Dustpan.’” See http://books.google.com/books?id=JGEEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA357&lpg=PA357&dq=little+dustpan+holborn&source=web&ots=YjFn_7mo71&sig=eHehNLT1RR3FzGfUJCm2ITFk_YA&hl=en&ei=XjCXScHHMYT8NPWmpfgL&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA357,M1

[13] Holburn was a busy commercial district in central London; its main throughfare connected the banking area of London to the business district in the West End of the city.  See pages 49-51 in Nead’s Victorian Babylon.

[14] Ninepence at the time this article was published would be the equivalent of approximately £10 today.  Proverbially “as nice as nine-pence,” meaning neat, tidy and orderly; possibly meant as ironic. Alternatively, a colloquial phrase “may the devil and nine-pence go with her” sending money and evil with someone going on a journey.  See the Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang page 252.   

[15] Britannia metal was first produced in 1770; it is an alloy with a silvery appearance, but made mostly of tin.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britannia_metal.

[16] The New Cut was a market in the Lambeth neighborhood.  It was, according to Broomfield’s discussion in Food and Cooking on page 86, a market which served working classes and was known as a busy and loud district.

[17] Lancashire and Middlesex were both centers of textile production of cotton material. These jobs were often filled by working class women, which many during the time argued was demoralizing for men and led to the destruction of familial relationships.  See page 164-166 in Searle Morality and the Market.

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