Peter Scholliers, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Until recently, the life of working-class families in many parts of the world swiveled around bread. Its price and quality dictated daily thoughts, little and big decisions, calorie intake, worries and hopes. High prices and poor quality of bread —often appearing as twins—alternated with periods of low prices and acceptable quality. Expensive bread could take a disastrous 40 percent of total family spending, which not only caused anxiety, riots and repression, but also migration, starvation, illnesses, and all sorts of interventions by national and local governments. The high import of wheat to Europe in the 1870s, together with the mechanization of milling and baking, led to the decrease of bread price. Together with rising wages, this caused the radical and persistent transformation of the diet and overall spending patterns.
Both the price and the quality of bread have been studied at large, with interest in price regulation and fraud. Yet, there remain lots of issues about the history of bread that need attention. One of these is the reaction of consumers to dear or adulterated bread. Consumers’ views inform about often neglected issues such as sentiments of fairness or judgement about quality, which may explain choices and decisions. Most of their reactions are studied through the vision of others, which only started to change with the arrival of consumer associations in the early twentieth century. Yet, the voice of consumers appeared earlier with the advent of workers’ co-operatives.
Here enters my paper, “Quality in the Eye of the Storm. The Bread of the Ghent Co-Operative Vooruit, 1880 – 1914”, that was published in Cultural and Social History (18:1  79-96). I focus on the modern bread factory of the socialist co-operative Vooruit (established in the industrial city of Ghent in 1880). Vooruit invited its members to overtly criticise the functioning, of the co-operative, its products and services, and its aspiring democratic business culture. Complaints were written in letters, uttered during meetings or mentioned to the bread carriers. Complaints about the bread quality were very regular, especially in the 1880s and early 1890s. Most of them were dealt with by the board of administration. The minutes of the board meetings allow us to investigate the way administrators, bakers and co-operators viewed good quality (picture 3). This provides a unique inside view of an enterprise that aimed at producing and selling bread at a low price, of constant weight, pure and of familiar taste. This was not easy. To Vooruit, bread was a constant concern because it was at the core of an expanding “red empire”. The sale of bread sustained grocery and garment stores, apothecaries, a newspaper, brass bands, choirs, a library and other initiatives (including support to strikers all over the country). So, high sales of bread were essential, and its quality and reputation were at the centre of attention.
Yet, “bad bread” was regularly baked and sold, which caused many complaints by the consumers: the bread was baked insufficiently or too much, it had not the correct weight, it was too watery or sticky, it included impure stuffs (dust, mice excrement and, once, a herringbone), it was black, it cracked, it had an odd taste or smell … When confronted with these regularly uttered complaints by co-operators, the administrators sought for explanations. They envisaged three causes: ingredients, machines, and the bakers’ skills. They excluded the ingredients because these were stringently controlled and regularly tested by the city’s chemical laboratory. They also eliminated the new kneading machines and hot-air ovens because these guaranteed perfect baking (to which the many enthusiastic visitors testified). So, the bakers were accused, in quite strong language, of being incapable, unreliable and ungrateful, despite their good working conditions. They were reprimanded, fined and, very exceptionally, fired.
The bakers reacted to the accusations by writing letters to the general manager, by demanding to be heard or, most often, by appearing before the board after being summoned. This offers a rare but clear insight in the daily relations on the work floor with both coarse and subtle disputes. The bakers argued that the flour was too young or too old, that it was “poor”, that the yeast was “bad”, that the water was too cold or too hot, that it had rained too much, that the chimney functioned badly or that the wind had been too strong. On these occasions, the administrators called the bakers all sorts of names such as “incompetent”, “lazy” and “traitors of our cause”. Particularly harsh were discussions about the number of loaves that were obtained out of 100 kilos of dough. Artisanal bakers got about 120 loaves of 1 kilo out of 100 kilos of dough, but mechanisation allowed them to increase this number to 140 and more. This was beneficial to the co-operative, but it lowered the bread quality. Vooruit pushed its bakers to “pull” at least 140 loaves, among others by applying a premium system for a couple of years, which automatically led to poorer quality. To be clear, compared to the 100,000 loaves that were weekly produced, the hundreds of complaints were only trivial. On a few occasions the controversy about Vooruit’s “bad bread” came into the open, which highly upset the leaders of the co-operative.
The discussions in the board of administration contribute not only to insight in industrial relations and production processes, but also and above all to knowledge of ideas about quality, in which common consumers actively participated.
About the author: Peter Scholliers is emeritus professor of contemporary history (Vrije Universiteit Brussel – VUB, Belgium) and collaborator of the research unit Social & Cultural Food Studies (FOST). He is co-editor (with Allen Grieco) of Food & History. He publishes about the history of food in Europe since the late 18th century. Click here for more information.