“the working classes forsook their joints of mutton”

If Victorian working-class men and women didn’t live particularly well, at least they ate and felt reasonably well. Between 1850 and 1870 deaths attributed to starvation and malnutrition accounted for approximately 1.5 percent of cases in the city, a figure only slightly higher than today’s. Infectious disease, accidents, and misfortune associated with violence or intoxication rated as the most common causes of sickness and death. Come the 1870s, however, this changed. Around 1877, foreign imports of wheat, along with advances in industrial canning and preserving, caused food costs to drop some 30 percent. A few years later, cheap sugar entered the mix—literally—appearing in every kind of processed food on the market. Encouraged by middle-class social reformers, who pronounced this first wave of processed food not only healthful but hygienic (a view that gained strength from frequent food-adulteration scares), the working classes forsook their joints of mutton and bunches of watercress for American tinned fruit and New Zealand evaporated milk.

They did so to disastrous result. By the time of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the British army found more than half of its recruits malnourished to the point of unfitness for service. The infantry deemed it necessary to lower its minimum height to five feet, down from five feet four inches, where it had stood since 1800. This apparent degeneration so alarmed the British government that it established the Committee on Physical Deterioration for the purpose of investigating the cause. It concluded that the working classes suffered from weak constitutions, which had beset them at the beginning of the previous century.

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