Non-perishable food was kept in the dresser
in the kitchen.
Perishable food though was a different matter, as there were no fridges when
I was a child in the early 1900s, so my mother always had to take steps in the
summer to keep perishable food in good condition.
The food safe / meat safe
Outdoor food safe also called a meat safe, widely used in all houses before
refrigeration. It had wire mesh sides and stood on stilts in the shade
outside a back door. (Squirrels only became a pest much later.)
See also indoor food
Like everyone else on our working class Huxley Estate, we had a food safe,
also known as a meat safe. This was a cupboard at eye level on stilts by the
fence that we shared with our neighbours. It was in the shade and just outside
the scullery door, for easy access. It was
made of wood with doors and sides which were open to the air apart from a covering of
fine galvanised wire mesh. This allowed the air to circulate while keeping insects
out. There was an upper and a lower compartment, both lined with white American
cloth, which was a fabric with a glazed or varnished wipe-clean surface.
Perishable food such as
meat, milk and butter were kept in this safe.
Yet meat was still was a problem to keep fresh in the summer months. 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.
The butter cooler and milk cooler
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.
These arrangements normally worked very well, but when the weather
was humid, the water wouldn't evaporate, so the butter wasn't cooled and it
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
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.
Scalding milk to keep it cool
Milk was kept in the same way with a beaded fabric circle placed over the
jug in a shallow dish of water.
However in very hot or humid weather, it still
went off easily. So my mother 'scalded' it to make it last longer. This involved heating the milk in a saucepan to near
boiling point, but this wasn't ideal 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
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.