Butchers and butchers' shops, early 20th century
Before supermarkets, all shops were small and sold only one type of merchandise. This page is about butchers. If you wanted to buy meat and lived away from a farm, you went to a butchers shop also just called a butcher, although the word butcher was also used for salesmen in a butchers shop.
Butchers were skilled at where and for how long to hang meat for it to become tender without going bad, and at how and where to cut it for cuts to sell to customers. Hawling and hacking into meat was heavy work, and butchers needed to be strong. Our local butcher was typical because he was big with a florid face.
Butchers could be recognised by their clothes, not unlike a uniform. The colours varied from shop to shop, but otherwise: a white shirt, a striped or plain white apron, plain dark trousers and a straw boater hat. Round the waist was a rather sagging belt. I don't know its purpose.
Red was a common colour for the strips, presumably to minimise the blood stains from the animals, but some shops prefered all white, probably to show that their clothes were clean.
Outside a butchers shop
Inside a butchers shop
Inside butchers shops, sides of beef would either be hanging up from large hooks suspended in the shop or in an ice-safe which was kept cool with ice supplied by the ice man.
Butchers kept their shops beautifully clean with fresh sawdust on the floor and shining tiles on the walls.
At the end of every day, the chopping boards, which looked rather like heavy three-legged stools were scrubbed with wire brushes and then washed. Choppers and knives had the same treatment. The day's sawdust on the floors, which had absorbed or coated spills, was swept up and new was put down.
Use of sawdust in old butchers shops
My grandfather's butcher's shop had been in the family for nearly 200 years before it closed. The bookshop which bought it entirely refurbished it and found nearly half a metre of sawdust under the floor. This had slipped through the gaps in the floorboards over the years.
Cleaning butchers' chopping boards
In my experience, steel scrapers were used to clean the chopping blocks as wire brushes would have been too difficult to steralise.
Suet is the raw, hard fat of beef, lamb or mutton around the loins and kidneys. It was bought as a lump and the butcher sometimes cut it out of a side of beef while I watched. It was minced at home.
The cylinder would be filled in the vertical position (as shown in the right-hand mock-up) before the fitting of the piston, lowering, connecting up and screwing on the required nozzle. Mock-up and additional information courtesy of Desmond Dyer.
Sausages were made in full view in a red sausage machine. In at the top would go the minced meat (and probably some meal and flavourings as well, although I can't be sure). Then butchers would put the skins on the nozzle and turn the handle.
It was fascinating for me to see the butchers take the long strings of the emerging sausage in their hands and with a flip of the fingers make a string of individual sausages. Unless the weather was exceptionally hot, these would be put over hooks and hung in shop windows.
Bones and fat
It was not unusual for bones to be on sale for women to use to flavour their soups.
Lumps of fat were on sale too for rendering down for dripping, which was a popular meal on its own, spread on a slice of toast. It was always beef dripping.
Minced meat was generally suspect because customers couldn't be sure what might have gone into it. Many women bought meat for mincing and minced it at home with a mechanical mincer. The better butchers, though, wouldn't sell ready-minced meat. They had a mincer on the side, would allow customers to choose the fresh meat that they wanted minced and then mince it in front of them. Many a time I heard my mother say to my father as she put a dish of mince in front of him, "It's all right: I saw it being minced."
Joints of meat
I was never directly involved in buying joints of meat. That was for my mother - and it was always beef. She didn't stay with one butcher. She loved looking at meat in butchers shops. She would say, "That's a lovely bit of beef", etc. I wouldn't have known.
Childhood errands to the butcher
I had to go to the local butcher about once a week and it was usually to get ¾ of a pound of leg of beef and a ¼ of a pound of beef suet for a meat pudding. I was never happy about this errand because my mother would always tell me to tell the butcher that she didn't want too much sinew. Yet far too often there was too much for her taste. Then she made me take the meat back which made me feel uncomfortable.
The butcher I was sent to was on the corner of Silver Street and Bulwer Road in Edmonton.