logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

Keeping food fresh in hot weather before home fridges

In houses on our working class housing estate in the early 1900s, non-perishable food was kept in a dresser in the kitchen.

Perishable foods though were a different matter, as there were no fridges when I was a child. So my mother always had to take steps in the summer to keep perishable food in good condition.

Perishable food such as meat, milk and butter were kept in the food safe, but it was still a problem to keep them fresh in summer months. So my mother had to resort to other measures:

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The butter cooler and milk cooler

Old butter cooler  porous earthenware /clay which worked by evaporation causing cooling

Commercial butter cooler made of porous fired clay. The base was stood in a dish of water, so that the outer clay container sucked up the water, becoming damp. This dampness evaporated which caused cooling, and accordingly cooled the butter in the glass dish inside. The glass dish could be removed for the table.

Home-made butter cooler made of fabric weighed down with beads and kept wet

Home-made butter cooler, crocheted from porous cotton thread and weighed down with beads. (It was easier to crochet a perfect round than to knit one.) The cooler was made wet and placed in a dish of water (not shown) so that the edges dipped into the water. This kept the entire crochet wet, and the evaporation caused cooling. Photographed in the Black Country Museum.

Butter was a problem too in the hot weather because it went rancid so quickly. To keep it as cool as possible, my mother covered it over with a basin and then covered the basin with a flannel. Then she put the butter, basin and flannel in a shallow pan of water so that the ends of the flannel dipped into the water. The evaporation of the water kept the basin cool and hence also kept the butter cool.

Often instead of a flannel, a piece of muslin or a crocheted circle was used, kept weighted down with beads sewn round the edge.

Milk was kept cool in the same way with a beaded fabric circle placed over the jug in a shallow dish of water.

However - and it was a big however, although these arrangements normally worked well, they did not when the weather was humid, like in a heat wave before a storm. Then the water wouldn't evaporate, so the butter and milk weren't cooled and they went off.

Then my mother had to resort to other measures:

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Scalding milk to stop it souring

In very hot and humid weather, when the milk cooler didn't work, my mother 'scalded' the milk to make it last longer. This involved heating the milk in a saucepan to near boiling point and letting it cool. Doing this wasn't ideal, though, because it took the substance out of the milk and made a skin form on top. I very much liked the skin but most people didn't. Also if the saucepan was not quite clean or if the heat was too fierce, the milk took on an unpleasant burnt taste.

Fortunately the dairy might make several deliveries each day in summer, but even so, I would sometimes be sent along to the dairy with a jug to buy more milk because what we had had gone sour.

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Keeping meat fresh in hot weather

Meat could be kept in some form of butter cooler in hot weather, but when the humidity was high and the water in the cooler wouldn't evaporate, the meat would still go off. Many a time I saw my mother wipe the Sunday joint over with a vinegar rag before cooking it because it was beginning to smell.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.