Thursday, March 24, 2011

Milk Below! (or Maybe Not...)

Thursday, March 24, 2011
Susan reporting:

As a group, milk-maids have perhaps the best image among historical street vendors. They're almost always shown as young, robust, and ripely beautiful. With their swinging buckets of fresh milk, they're tidily dressed, and represent the healthy bounty of the country. Even today, the dairy aisle of modern grocery stores features idealized images of fresh-faced milk-maids as nostalgic testament to Goodness and Freshness.

But as charming as this image might be, not everyone bought it. One of the TNHG favorite 18th c. authors, Tobias Smollet, presented this stomach-churning impression of a Covent Garden milk-maid in his 1771 novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:

"The milk itself should not pass unanalysed, the produce of faded cabbage leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot-passengers, overflowings from mud-carts, spatterings from coach-wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke's sake, the spewing of infants who have slabbered in the tin measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk, for the benefit of the next customer; and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk-maid."

Above: Milk Below! by Francis Wheatley, as part of his "Cries of London" series, 1792-1795.

14 comments:

Le Loup said...

I prefere the image in the painting thank you!
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/

Rachael Hale said...

Thanks for another great post but I wish I'd eaten my cereal first!

March 17th said...

I was about to make a coffee - with milk..... Smollet a great favourite of mine too this reminds me why...!

Heather Carroll said...

And here I am being all grossed out by non-organic milk with all those unwanted additives...but I guess I'll just deal!

zredbaron said...

All euphemisms aside...nice buckets! Wouldn't mind having one of those for my next reenactment. To bad its a little late for Rev. War.

Paul Dickfoss said...

These buckets are charecteristic of milkmaids for the entire 18th century with the brass band at the top and bottom. The handle of the measure allows you to hook the measure on the top edge of the bucket.

Francis Wheatley unrealistically perfumed all his cries of London prints. They were watercolored after printing so colors may very from print to print.

Paul Sandby's picture was "drawn from the life" c. 1759 and show the same distinctive buckets.
http://www.mystudios.com/artgallery/P/Paul-Sandby/London-Cries-A-Milkmaid,-c.1759.html I would love to see a milkmaid with these buckets at an F&I or Rev. War event!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Yes, this passage makes me very glad to live now! There are lots of 18th c. pieces describing the various "tricks" that vendors used to improve their wares, from boiling shriveled oranges to plump them up and thickening milk with flour to sell as "cream." Let the buyer beware - or at least ignorant.

zredbaron & Paul Dickfoss - I like the buckets too, even if they are likely more polished here than they likely were in reality. Paul, thank you for sharing the Sandby drawing - very nice!

As for a modern-day re-enactor carrying two full buckets of milk with a yoke on her shoulders - she'd better be strong. :)

Kara said...

Yum - blech! Interesting that they portray the milk maid wearing colors similar to the oft portrayed Virgin Mary in classical tradition (red robe and a blue mantle). Surely this reinforces the pure image of the maid.

Pauline said...

I've often wondered if the healthy image of the milkmaid didn't stem from the simple fact that she had immunity to small pox due to her exposure to cow pox and thus remained smoothed cheeked. Just a thought.

nightsmusic said...

Ewww!

Deb said...

Pauline is right on the money! Because most milk maids had been infected with a mild form of pox called cow pox, they rarely became infected with the more virulent smallpox strain and, therefore, did not have the pock-marked complexion of most smallpox survivors. I seem to remember a (probably apocryphal) anecdote from my school days that a milk maid told Edward Jenner that she never feared getting smallpox because she'd had cow pox. Jenner put two and two together and created the first smallpox vaccine.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Pauline & Deb - I think you ladies are entirely right! At least I've read this same story about Edward Jenner making the connection between cowpox and smallpox, and it does make sense. In an era when a great many people were scarred by smallpox (and when employers took it as a favorable sign in future employees, seeing the pockmarks as proof that he or she had already survived the disease), the unblemished cheeks of milkmaids must have stood out.

As for the grossness of Smollett's description - d'you think he might - just might - have been exaggerating for effect? You know, like all those horrifying accounts of what unwary diners find in fast food burgers today? *g*

The Devoted Classicist said...

I was very interested to see the lantern standard in the form of an obelisk, a combination I do not recall seeing before. Perhaps it is in keeping with the architecture of the adjacent building.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Devoted Classicist, I noted that unusual lantern, too. Apparently the artist of this print, Francis Wheatley, grew up in the Covent Garden area, and was very familiar with both the various vendors and the settin he portrayed. If that's so, then I'm guessing that light might have been based on an actual landmark in the area. It is curious, though.

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