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  • Milk and the Victorians: The Problem of Adulteration
  • Chris Otter (bio)

Milk may be regarded as a model food, and as a complete food,” declared the analytical chemist George Wigner in 1884. “It is a model food because it is nature’s own food, designed for the sustenance of the young of animals, and, as such, it contains and furnishes all the nutritive properties in due proportion required by a growing animal” (3). British consumption levels of this “model food” were rising in the Victorian period, even if they lagged behind much of northern Europe and the United States. One 1902 estimate suggested that average milk consumption in London had doubled between 1884 and 1901, reaching two-fifths of a pint daily (Swan 89).

Milk was, however, the most problematic of foodstuffs. While outlandish claims about the adulteration of milk, particularly the persistent myth about the nefarious addition of sheep’s brains, were almost certainly “utter fiction,” the addition of water and the removal of cream diluted milk’s nutritional quality and potentially exposed consumers to dangerous waterborne pathogens such as typhoid (Morton 72). William Savage, Medical Officer of Health for Somerset, concluded that milk was “fatally easy to adulterate,” and his choice of adverb was deliberate (80). The problem’s scale was first exposed by Arthur Hassall, in several Lancet exposés published between 1851 and 1854. In 1880, Londoners were estimated to be paying seventy to eighty thousand pounds annually for water sold as milk (“London Milk”). One 1892 estimate suggested that “between twenty and thirty thousand additional cows would be required if pure milk only were sold in London” (“Tricks of the London Milk Trade”).

Adulteration, then, was both an economic and a public health problem. But how could chemists prove that a particular sample of milk was adulterated? Milk is a composite mixture of proteins, fats, sugars, minerals, vitamins, and trace elements coexisting in various states; it was perhaps “the most delicate and complex fluid in nature,” and was “not to be read like an open book, clearly printed, even by those who have been taught the alphabet” (Sheldon 97). The proportion of fat varied with the cow’s age, time after calving, diet, climate, and milking regimen (Hassall 390). It did not emerge from the cow in anything like a “standard” condition. Drawing a firm boundary between naturally weak and adulterated milk was “very difficult, if not absolutely impossible” (Long 43). Some scoffed at the idea that “normal milk” could be defined: “one might as well talk of a ‘normal potato,’ or a ‘normal cabbage,’ or a ‘normal pig’ ” (Voelcker 250).

Chemists set out to find ways to calculate the ratio of fat to other solids. Since fats are lighter than the rest of milk, removing them caused milk’s specific gravity to rise. Water, however, is also lighter than milk, so adding it caused milk’s specific gravity to fall. This allowed for the estimation of either the amount of abstracted cream or of added water through the use [End Page 192] of rudimentary specific-gravity measuring implements: lactometers and creamometers. However, many analysts argued that such instruments were useless because they failed to distinguish between abstracted cream and added water. Moreover, cream could be removed and water added, producing a normal reading. Lactometry declined in popularity after 1880, and laboratory techniques that avoided specific-gravity measurements became more common (Atkins 65). Perhaps the most successful of these was the Babcock test (fig. 1): milk’s non-fatty solids were dissolved with sulphuric acid, and the fat was then separated in a centrifuge (Farrington and Woll 25). It was accurate, fast, and easy, although handling sulphuric acid required care (Farrington and Woll 6–7). Other new forms of testing included techniques of acidity measurement, refractive indices, and bacteriological analysis. The “normal” material composition of milk, below which adulteration could generally be assumed, was established by the 1890s. Paul Veith, the Aylesbury Dairy Company’s chief analyst, analyzed 120,540 samples over eleven years, concluding that normal milk contained 12.9% total solids, of which 4.1% was fat (85).

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Fig. 1.

“Milk and Cream Tester’s...


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pp. 192-195
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