The following passage comes from Chapter 7, “Other Island Appetites,” in the author's British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, which relates the changes in British diet and cuisine to a wide range of political and economic factors, in the process providing a history of the nation (or nations) from a fascinating point of vantage. — George P. Landow

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rom the earliest days . . . until greater urbanisation and the industrial revolution, women laboured in the fields besides their husbands and sons. It was not only the milking and feeding of livestock, but they spread the manure, carried the sheaves for threshing, cleaned out the byres and stables and helped winnow the corn, as an account from the Lothians in 1656 makes clear. A fit and able wife was essential to any adult male agricultural worker. It was also expected that not only were they the cooks for the main daily meal, but that bread would have been baked and at times of glut for any fruit and vegetable, it would be preserved, bottled, pickled or dried.

Women’s work was not confined to farming. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coal-mining women were part of the workforce; colliers in the east Lothian had to provide bearers to carry the coal to the surface, and generally they chose their wives and daughters. In pits such as Loanhead in Midlothian in the 1680s or Bo’ness in West Lothian during the 1760s women outnumbered men by two to one. This phenomenon was almost unknown in England. Women who lived around large towns could market vegetables, fruit and dairy products; fishwives from Fishmerrow and Prestonpans walked to Edinburgh to sell the fish caught by their husbands and fathers. Rural domestic industry was important, especially in the textile industry, and in the mid-eighteenth century roughly eighty per cent of adult women were involved in spinning. Women’s participation in trade was generally limited to shop-keeping. . . . The concept of a ‘housewife’ (a married woman who simply looked after her house and family) did not exist until the eighteenth century, until with greater urbanisation the burgeoning of the middle classes occurred and female leisure became an indication of the husband’s social status. [194]


Spencer, Colin. British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Created 15 September 2015