Abstracts - for the 8 September 2011

Food and Beverages: Retailing, Distribution and Consumption in Historical Perspective

Abstracts 14.00-15.30

Alessia Menghin, St Andrews University, UK, ‘At the table of Piero, a Florentine civic employee in the Quattrocento’

The paper wishes to examine the eating habits of a Florentine civic employee, Piero di Francesco da Vicchio, a donzello of the Parte Guelfa (one of the governmental bodies of the commune) in the fifteenth century.

The ricordanze (books of family records) and especially the memoriale (recollections) in which Piero left records of his life and activity, will form the basis for the paper which will first of all identify the basic components of the diet of ordinary people, and especially of workers in Quattrocento Florence.  I will analyze the cereals used, and above all the bread (omnipresent and predominant), produce such as meat and lard, and the drinks consumed by Piero and his family. The records also allow us to trace the daily, seasonal and annual dynamics of consumption in Piero’s household.

In pre-industrial societies like Quattrocento Florence out of season and exotic produce imported from far away was a comfort destined - due to the high cost of the goods imported - only to the wealthy. The paper will show that Piero, despite not being rich himself, was nonetheless able to purchase more refined wines, parmesan cheese (regarded as a delicacy), expensive meat, vegetables, and even some spices. In fact, Piero’s real income not only allowed occasional little luxuries, but the records attesting to considerable degrees of provision show that in contrast to many of his social equals, shopping for food was for him not just a satisfaction of essential needs. As the evidence suggests, his and his family’s diet do not seem to have been affected by a chronic deficit in animal fat and protein for example, and despite the relatively low agricultural production of the time, a certain variety of vegetables in his diet seems to have been the norm rather than the exception.


Carolina Román Ramos, Universidad de la República, Uruguay, ‘Consumption patterns and its determinants during the first half of the 20th century: a historical and comparative approach’

Consumption is an important component of social welfare and constitutes an aggregate measure of the economic dimension of standards of living. Food spending, calories consumed, consumption shifts toward more sophisticated good and services, can be understood as indicators of the standards of living of a society and may allow us to compare development levels among regions in the long-run. In addition, consumption is related to economic growth, income distribution, urbanization, demographic structure and the modernization of a society, constituting and interesting ‘pivot concept` to study economic development in a broad approach. This paper studies the characteristics of the consumption patterns during the first half of the twentieth century for a group of countries and explores the relation with some of it main determinants. We consider consumption patterns as the changes in the distribution of household expenditure among different categories of goods and services (food, housing, fuel and light, clothing and miscellaneous). We based our analysis on the information provided by the studies about standard living conditions of the working classes that were carried in the thirties for several regions in the world. These studies bring information about the family expenses on consumption and distribution among groups of items. We used two types of sources: the Labour Statistics Yearbook of the International Labour Organization (ILO) –that survey information about household expenditure for several groups of countries– and national studies. We focus on consumption patterns as the share of each type of expenditure on the family budget (in percentage and current prices), as well as the calories consumed. In addition, we aim to explain different consumption patterns among regions considering some of the main economic determinants such as wages, income per capita, prices, demographic structure and urbanization. The results are consistent with our theoretical expectations and motivate new hypothesis to be tested in following steps of this research.


Ros Watkiss, University of Wolverhampton, UK, ‘ “Popping to the corner”: grocery shopping in the post-war Black Country’

Traditionally, for the working classes, food shopping was a task performed by women on a virtually daily basis, at corner shops or local markets.  In the 1960s the advent of supermarkets, combined with the accessibility of refrigerators and increasing numbers of married women in full-time employment, are credited with changing consumption patterns – affecting the retailer and customer relationship, frequency of purchasing foodstuff and the length of the shopping journey.  There is a general perception that, between 1950 and the 1970s, shopping habits underwent a dramatic change as the majority of consumers deserted local shops in favour of cheaper goods from the ‘self-service’ stores and supermarkets, which they visited only once or twice a week.  However, it is possible that historians have exaggerated the rate of transformation, and that the change in shopping habits was not necessarily so marked or extensive as some have claimed.  Oral research within three small Black Country communities has revealed that the majority of working and lower-middle class consumers were slow to change their shopping habits, adhering to pre-war shopping practices into the 1970s.  They continued to patronise local shops, purchasing small amounts of food on a regular basis.  This paper argues that the continuing use of traditional methods of consumption was due to a combination of long-standing custom, loyalty to the shopkeeper, the flexibility of payment afforded by the ‘tick’ book and continuing perceptions that the corner shop remained the social hub of many communities.


Sabina Bellofatto, University of Zurich, Switzerland, ‘ “Buon appetito Svizzera!” The consumption history of the Italian cuisine in post-war Switzerland’

In the 1960th, simultaneously to the second wave of Italian migration, Italian dishes and goods like wheat pasta, Italian canned tomatoes, fruits and parmigiano-reggiano cheese found widespread diffusion and acceptance in Switzerland. Italy was the most important holiday destination and Italian restaurants were very popular.

Yet, the Italians immigrants, who in 1964 accounted 474’300 - 68,8 % of the total number of foreigners in Switzerland -, certainly influenced the consumer demand. But as the xenophobic discourses of that time illustrate, the Swiss didn’t appreciate the eating habits of the Italians. In my sources I found letters to the editor in journals and periodicals, in which writers make a point, that Italians and Swiss will never get used to one another because of their apparently different eating habits. The success and widespread acceptance of the Italian cuisine can’t therefore be explained only with the presence of the Italian immigrants, but has to be contextualized with the process of consumerism and mass consumption. 

My dissertation examines the consumption and diffusion of the Italian cuisine in post-war Switzerland, as a means to investigate how the Italian immigrants functioned as cultural mediators. And on the other hand I propose to trace the “distributors role” of supermarkets chains and their marketing policies, Italian food stores and restaurants.

This approach enables me to explore in which way the absorption and diffusion of a particular cuisine is a matter of transculturation and how this process is grounded in the changing patterns of needs and wants driven by economic changes.


Jonathan Morris, University of Hertfordshire, UK, ‘Making Italian espresso, making espresso Italian’

Espresso coffee has become synonymous with Italy, as have those beverages which employ this as a base such as cappuccino and caffè latte.  This paper will examine the processes by which espresso became ‘Italian’ over the course of the twentieth century by investigating the ways that the taste of Italian coffee has evolved, along with the taste for coffee amongst the Italians.  It will analyse the development of both the domestic and ‘away from home’ markets, and the evolution of the distribution chains linking coffee roasters and machine makers to bars and grocery retailers, within the context of socio-economic changes in 20th C. Italy.  This will be combined with a focus on the changes in the cultural construction of coffee in Italy as reflected in marketing and communications strategies that have shifted from presenting coffee as an exotic overseas product to an icon of ‘Italianess’, not least as a response to the success of espresso outside the country. 


Eva Maria von Wyl, University of Zurich, Switzerland, ‘Ready to eat! American eating habits in postwar Switzerland’

Swiss food and eating habits have changed profoundly in the past 60 years, and the Swiss diet has been reshaped by globalization, affluence and mass consumption. Also, cooking has become increasingly quick and effortless due to industrial processing. Many of the changes and reforms within the Swiss eating habits in the postwar period originated in the United States, where economy and wealth had been growing ever since the 1920s.

At the end of World War II, the United States therefore became a role model for modern consumerism and a new way of life, the so called “American way of life”. New forms of (mass) production and (mass) consumption, which were based on improved efficiency and rationalization, also affected food consumption and eating habits: convenience foods, ready-to-eat meals and frozen goods now became popular with both consumers and producers. New, industrially produced foodstuff meant short and easy preparation for consumers and opened promising new markets for producers. American influence, and subsequently the concept of rationalization, can, in fact, be found throughout the entire industrial food chain, from production, marketing and selling to cooking and eating. Moreover, American influence, rationalization, and the increasing popularity of processed foods, can also be identified by considering common goods such as cola, ice tea, cornflakes, potato chips, ice cream and chewing gum.

Working on this hypothesis, this paper, on the one hand, considers the introduction of three distinctive food products in Switzerland: cornflakes, potato chips, and cola. Each had its own unique story of “becoming Swiss”. On the other hand, both the impact of the United States on these chosen examples and the different ways in which each item became integrated as an everyday food in Switzerland are examined and discussed.



Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890

Email: L.Ugolini@wlv.ac.uk