Baked Potato Sellers of the 1800s in England

Baked potato sellers began selling their wares around the late 1830s. The first potato sellers sold potatoes “roasted as chestnuts … but only on a small scale.”[1] Potato sellers were said to be “broken-down tradesmen,” and around the same time that Madame Tussaud established her Chamber of Horrors in the mid-1840s, these sellers became a regular item on London streets. In fact there were no “fewer than three hundred individuals engaged in the street trade of baked potatoes.”[2] You could easily find the hot potato seller by his cry, “Hot hot all ot — mealy and floury, hot ot ot. Yere’s yer reg’lar Hirish fruit, with plenty of butter and salt, all ot ot hot.”[3]

Baked Potato Sellers and "All Hot" by Samuel Stanesby, Author's Collection

“All Hot” by Samuel Stanesby. Author’s collection.

After the Irish potato famine, it was cheaper by the 1860s to sell French Regent potatoes because these potatoes were cheaper than the Irish or English potatoes. In a way it was surprising that anything French would be associated with the potato because at one point potatoes in France were viewed as hog feed and if it hadn’t been for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier the potato would never have been popular if France. French Regent potatoes were a “large-sized ‘fruit,’ about two or three to the pound.”[4] These roasted potatoes that were sold on the streets were often different from the potatoes people ate at home because they did not shrivel when baking and they were rough skinned, the “mealiest,” and not waxy.

Potatoes, Author's Collection

Potatoes. Author’s collection.

French Regents came “280 to 300 in the cwt.,”[5] and after being cleaned and dried by the potato huckster. They were then “taken in baskets, about a quarter cwt. at a time, to the baker’s to be cooked.”[6] Bakers usually provided tins for the baking, and the baking lasted for as long as an hour and half. After the potatoes were baked, they were covered with green baize — a coarse woolen cloth now used to cover pool or billiard tables. The baize protected the potatoes from the cold until they could be put into the seller’s can.

The can the baked potato sellers sold from stood on four legs and had a half lid and a large handle on top. Suspended beneath the can was a fire-pot and directly above the fire pot was a boiler for hot water, and “above the boiler, … [was] a small pipe for carrying off the steam.”[7] Additionally, at either end of the potato can were two compartments: one that held butter, pepper, and salt and another compartment that held charcoal to keep the fire-pot going.

The Royal Haymarket Potato Seller, Public Domain

The Royal Haymarket potato seller. Public domain.

The baked potato seller’s cans were often a thing of pride to the potato seller with some cans even possessing names: “the ‘Royal Union Jack,’ … the ‘Royal George,’ the ‘Prince of Wales,’ the ‘Original Baked Potatoes,’ and the ‘Old Original Baked Potatoes.'”[8] They were also “sometimes brightly polished, sometimes painted red, and occasionally brass-mounted.”[9] Some baked potato sellers would spend up to half an hour polishing their cans making them bright. Historian Henry Mayhew, who wrote London Labour and the London Poor, claimed that “some of the handsomest are all brass, and some are highly ornamented with brass-mountings.”[10] However, supposedly, the finest potato can in London belonged to a seller in Shoreditch, which Mayhew described in the following fashion:

“It cost ten guineas, and is of brass mounted with German silver. There are three lamps attached to it, with coloured glass, and of a style to accord with that of the machine; each lamp cost 5s.“[11]

Henry Mayhew. Courtesy of British Museum.

Some potato hawkers sold from regular spots and others traveled “from place to place with their cans on their arms.”[12] The briskest trade occurred in the vicinity of “Clare, Newport, Covent-garden, Newgate, [and] Smithfield.”[13] These spots were where most potatoes were sold. The busiest days for the distant markets that catered to the “working people” was Saturday and Monday. Moreover, “the best hours [were] … from half-past ten in the morning till two in the afternoon, and from five in the evening till eleven or twelve at night,”[14] with nine o’clock in the evening being the prime hour.

Even though potatoes were sold for eating, not all potatoes were eaten. Sometimes potatoes were purchased just to warm hands. Such potatoes were considered “a cheap luxury to the poor wayfarer, who was benumbed in the night by cold, and an excellent medium for diffusing warmth into the system, by being held in the gloved hand.”[14]

Baked potato sellers did not work year round. In fact, their business rarely lasted more than eight months. The season started in mid-August and continued until the end of April, or until the potatoes became “bad.” At that time, baked potato sellers often switched to “selling strawberries, raspberries, or anything in season.”[15] However, when potatoes were in season, thousands upon thousands were sold.

Baked Potato Seller, Public Domain

Baked potato seller. Public domain.

One of the most successful baked potato sellers worked in Smithfield. He supposedly sold “about 2 1/2 cwt. of potatoes on market-day; or, in other words, from 900 to 1,000 potatoes [a day].”[16] Mayhew estimated the number of potatoes sold and arrived at the following:

“[On] average, taking the good stands with the bad ones throughout London, there [were] about 1 cwt. of potatoes sold by each baked-potato man — and taking the number … throughout the metropolis at 200, … a total of 10 tons of baked potatoes [were] consumed every day. … Hence there [were] 60 tons of baked potatoes eaten in London streets, and 750l. spent upon them every week during the season.”[17]

References:

  • [1] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1, 1861, p. 90.
  • [2] The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor, 1863, p. 345.
  • [3] Mayhew, Henry, p. 196.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 173.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 174.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 173.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor, p. 345.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid.

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