November 2012

IZA DP No. 6988: Urban Working-Class Food Consumption and Nutrition in Britain in 1904

Published in: Economic History Review, 2015, 68, (1), 101-122

This article re-examines the food consumption of working class households in 1904 and compares the nutritional content of these diets with modern measures of adequacy. We find a fairly steep gradient of nutritional attainment relative to economic class, with high levels of vitamin and mineral deficiency among the very poorest working households. We conclude that the average unskilled-headed working households was better fed and nourished than previously thought. When proper allowance is made for the likely consumption of alcohol, household energy intakes were significantly higher still. We investigate the likely impact of contemporary cultural food distribution norms and conclude on the basis of the very limited evidence available that women were receiving about 0.8 of the available food, which was consistent with their nutritional needs. We adjust energy requirements for likely higher physical activity rates and smaller stature and find that except among the poorest households, early twentieth century diets were sufficient to provide energy for reasonably physically demanding work. This is consistent with recent attempts to relate the available anthropometric evidence to long-run trends in food consumption. We also find that the lower tail of the household nutrition distribution drops away very rapidly, so that few households suffered serious food shortages.