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

Food storage in a working class London household in the 1900s

A food safe also called a meat safe, widely used in all houses before refrigeration

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 safes.

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.

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The food safe / meat safe

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.

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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 went off.

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.

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.

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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 sour.

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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.