Bread Manufacture (Marx, 1862)

From Marxists-en
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Garibaldi, the American Civil War, the revolution in Greece, the cotton crisis, Veillard’s bankruptcy[1]—everything is overshadowed for the moment in London by the—question of bread, but the question of bread in the literal sense. The English, who are so proud of their “ideas in iron and steam”, have suddenly discovered that they have been making the “staff of life”[2] in the same antediluvian manner as at the time of the Norman Conquest. The only essential progress consists in the adulteration of the foodstuffs that modern chemistry has facilitated. It is an old British proverb that every man, even the best, must eat “a peck of dirt” in his lifetime. This was meant in the moral sense. John Bull has not the slightest suspicion that he is eating, in the coarsest physical sense, an incredible mixtum compositum[3] of flour, alum, cobwebs, black beetles, and human sweat. Being the Bible reader he is, he knew, of course, that man earns his bread in the sweat of his brow[4]; but it was something brand-new to him that human sweat must enter into bread dough as a seasoning.

The sequence of steps in which big industry appropriates the various territories in which it finds handiwork, artisanship and manufacture established seems preposterous at first sight. Producing wheat, for example, is a rural occupation, and baking bread an urban one. Should it not be expected that industrial production would take over the urban trade earlier than the rural one? And yet things have gone in the opposite direction. Wherever we look, we shall find that the most immediate needs have thus far avoided the influence of large-scale industry, with more or less obstinacy, and their satisfaction depends upon the hopelessly detailed craft methods of ancient tradition. It is not England but North America that first made a breach in this tradition, and that only in our times. The Yankee was the first to apply machinery to tailoring, bootmaking, etc., and even transferred them from the factory into the private house. The phenomenon can easily be explained, however. Industrial production calls for mass production, on a large scale, for commerce, instead of for private consumption, and by the nature of things raw materials and semi-manufactured goods are the first things it takes over, and finished goods destined for immediate consumption the last.

Now, however, the hour of the downfall of the master bakers and of the rise of the bread manufacturer seems to have struck in England. The disgust and loathing evoked by Mr. Tremenheere’s disclosures as to the “mysteries of bread”[5] would not by themselves have been sufficient to produce such a revolution if it were not for the added circumstance that capital, in large amounts driven by the American crisis out of domains it has long monopolised, is anxiously looking around for new fields to settle down in.

The journeymen at the London bakeries had flooded Parliament with petitions protesting their exceptionally wretched condition. The Home Secretary[6] appointed Mr. Tremenheere investigator and a kind of examining magistrate into these complaints. Mr. Tremenheere’s report was the signal for the storm to begin. Mr. Tremenheere’s report is divided into two main sections.

The first describes the wretched state of the workers in the bakeries; the second reveals the disgusting mysteries of breadmaking itself. The first part portrays the journeymen in the bakeries as “the white slaves of civilisation”. Their usual working hours begin at 11 in the evening and last until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The work increases towards the weekend. In most London bakeries it continues without a break from 10 o’clock Thursday evening till Saturday night. The average life-span of these workers, most of whom die of consumption, is 42 years.

As for the breadmaking itself, it takes place for the most part in cramped underground vaults either ventilated badly or not at all. In addition to lack of ventilation, there are the pestilential vapours from bad outlet ducts, “and the fermenting bread gets impregnated with the noxious gases surrounding it”. Cobwebs, black beetles, rats and mice are “incorporated with the dough”.

“It was with the utmost reluctance,” says Mr. Tremenheere, “that I came to the conclusion that a batch of dough is rarely made without having more or less of the perspiration, and often of the more morbid secretions, of the men who make it mixed up with it.”

Even the finest bakeries are not free from these revolting abominations, but they reach an indescribably low point in the holes where the bread of the poor is baked, and where too the adulteration of the flour with alum and bone-earth is practised most freely.

Mr. Tremenheere proposes stricter laws against adulteration of bread, as well as putting the bakeries under government supervision, limiting the working hours for “young people” (i.e., those who have not reached the age of 18) from 5 in the morning to 9 at night, and so forth, but very reasonably does not expect the elimination of the abuses, which arise out of the old method of production itself, to come from Parliament, but from large-scale industry.

As a matter of fact, the Stevens machine for preparing dough has already been installed in certain places. There is another, similar machine at the industrial exhibition. Both still leave too much of the baking process to manual work. On the other hand, Dr. Dauglish has revolutionised the entire process of making bread. From the moment the flour leaves the hopper to the time the bread goes into the oven, no human hand touches it in this system. Dr. Dauglish does away with yeast entirely and effects fermentation by the use of carbonic acid. He reduces the entire operation of making bread, including the baking, from eight hours to 30 minutes. Night work is entirely done away with. The employment of carbonic acid gas interdicts any admixture of adulterants. A great saving is made by the changed method of fermentation, and also in particular by combining the new machinery with an American invention, by which the gritty coating of the grain is removed without, as previously, destroying three-fourths of the bran, which is the most nutritious part of the grain, according to the French chemist, Mége Mouriès. Dr. Dauglish calculates that his process would save England 8 million pounds sterling in flour every year. Another saving is in coal consumption. The cost of coal, including the steam engine, for the oven is reduced from 1 shilling to 3 pence. The carbonic acid gas, prepared from the best sulfuric acid, costs about 9 pence per sack, while at the present time the yeast comes to over a shilling for the bakers.

A bakery on the now much improved method of Dr. Dauglish was installed some time ago in a part of London, at Dockhead, Bermondsey, but went out of business because of the unfavourable location of the shop. At the present time, similar plants are operating in Portsmouth, Dublin, Leeds, Bath, and Coventry, and, it is said, with very satisfying results. The plant recently installed in Islington (a suburb of London) under Dr. Dauglish’s personal supervision is aimed more at training the workers than at sales. Preparations for introducing the machinery on a large scale are being made at the municipal bakery of Paris.

General adoption of the Dauglish method will turn most of today’s English master bakers into mere agents of a few large bread manufacturers. They will only be engaged in retail selling thereafter, not with production; and for most of them that will not be a particularly painful metamorphosis, since in point of fact they are already only agents of the large millers. The triumph of machine-made bread will mark a turning point in the history of large-scale industry, the point at which it will storm the hitherto doggedly defended last ditch of medieval artisanship.

  1. The revolutionary events in Greece, from February 1862 onwards, were a reaction to the country's exceedingly grave economic position, the aftermath of the Anglo-French occupation of 1854-57. The struggle, headed by the national bourgeoisie, was directed against foreign domination of the economy and political life. On October 22, 1862 the Athens garrison mutinied and was supported by the city's entire population. A provisional government was formed which proclaimed the deposition of King Otho (Othon) of Bavaria. However, in June 1863, Britain, France and Russia, Greece's protectors under the 1832 convention, signed a protocol enthroning Prince William of Denmark as King of Greece under the name of George I of the Hellenes. Veillard was a French businessman connected with the organising committee of the Great Exhibition in London (see Note 255). His bankruptcy, announced in September 1862, shortly before the closure of the Exhibition, caused a sensation in the press. p. 252
  2. Marx uses the English phrase and gives the German translation in brackets. Further on he uses the English phrases "a peck of dirt" and "black beetles" and giving the German translation in the first case.— Ed.
  3. Hodge-podge.— Ed.
  4. Genesis, 3:19.— Ed.
  5. This refers to the Report Addressed to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, Relative to the Grievances Complained of by the Journeymen Bakers. London, 1862.— Ed.
  6. G. Grey.— Ed.