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The Fifth Extract – What the Grocers Sold

This is the fifth extracts taken from the book, Spalding in the Sixties and Seventies (1860 & 70’s) by F Ridlington.

What Grocers Sold.

I often helped in a neighbouring grocers shop on market days. There were no packet teas then. The grocer weighed the quantities asked for out of large canisters containing either black or green tea. Customers usually preferred mixed black and green tea. The prices ranged from 3s. to 4s. 6d. per 1lb., and not much was sold to poor people. Moist sugar was sold in one pound conical shaped blue paper packets known as cups, “and very neat they looked when packed in the shelves.

One of the first tasks of the apprentice was to learn to turn these cups, and the spare time of the staff was utilised to build up stocks of them. Being nested they did not occupy much space. Some young men never learned to turn the cups with the necessary neatness. It was a gift. Lump sugar (or loaf sugar as it was then called) was brought to the grocer in the form of a solid cone weighing perhaps 2 stones. These loaves resembled

Mother Shipton’s hat. A certain shape is known today as “sugar loaf. ” There are “sugar loaf” mountains. The grocer reduced these great lumps to useable sizes in a chopping machine.

Grocers were the chief distributors of butter (there was no imported butter then), but a. good deal was bought by householders in the market where a visitor to the Butter Cross saw a good deal of tasting by the buyers. The system employed in the butter trade was peculiar.

Nearly every farmer’s wife brought a basket of butter to Spalding on market day, with a grocery order enclosed. The grocer had these fetched to his shop from the carts or traps of his customers. The butter in pound and half pound rolls covered by a piece of “butter muslin” was then counted, the market price ascertained and the amount due to the seller calculated. The grocery order was executed and the value set of against the butter. What seemed wrong to me was that there was only one nice for the butter irrespective of its quality.

Bad Butter.

Most of it was interior and in hot weather uneatable to all whose plates had not been debased by habitually swallowing nasty things. Some butter was first rate but the maker received no more for it than was paid for stuff that sometimes was only fit to grease the axels of carts.

The fact is the shopkeeper dare not offend a customer by refusing to pay the market for bad butter, lest he should jeopardise the grocery order. Any rival would be more than willing to secure a new customer even if he had to pay more for her butter than it was worth. This state of things perpetuated the anomaly.

The production of so much nauseous butter can be explained by the absence of cream separators and also of any official regulation of diaries. The milk as it came from the cow stood in great pans long enough for the cream to rise to the top. This was then skimmed and transferred to the churn. With the object of obtaining every last drop of cream from the milk, the farmer’s wife often deferred the skimming so long the milk turned sour and the resulting butter had a rancid taste.

The so- called dairy was often merely pantry and milk in the pans was tainted with odours from neighbouring cooked or uncooked joints, fowls or game hanging in the same apartment. These conditions were brought to an end by dairies being subjected to official inspection. The prices of butter ranged from 6d. or 7d. per 1b. in the summer to 1s. 8d. in the winter. The butter making industry in England has now dwindled to a mere bagatelle. Our suppIies come from Denmark, Holland, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Russia and several countries in the East of Europe. All of it being produced in the best sanitary conditions in factories.

In my opinion, however, the flavour of British butter if properly made, far exceed s that of any other brands. Making butter before the introduction machinery was a troublesome task and dairy farmers found it more advantageous to sell their milk as it came from the cow.

No Tinned Goods

The scores of varieties of tinned delicacies which crowd the grocery shelves to-day were not to be seen in my young days.

It was not true then as wags assert is the case nowadays. That all the kitchen equipment needed by the modern housewife is a frying pan and a tin opener.

There were no tobacconists’ shops. The grocer supplied tobacco. The demand was then for light and dark shag, at 3d. per ounce. The working men bought cheaper twist tobacco for either chewing or smoking in pipes. The first tobacco mixture I heard of came at a later date, the maker being a firm in Boston. I never saw cigarettes in the sixties.

A good deal of snuff was consumed, especially by tailors, shoe makers, printers and lawyer’s clerks. It was sold by the grocers. I know a cottage dweller who regularly made clay pipes and hawked them to shops and public houses.

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Typical Grocers Shop