links for 2008-02-15
New York Times Death Spiral Watch (Gail Collins Department)

Night Thoughts While Baking Oatcakes

Source: Jan de Vries lecture, 2/13/2008

Here we have a graph covering the period from the War of the Pragmatic Sanction to World War I, showing for six global cities the male day-laborer wage divided by the cost of 2000 cheap calories--rice in China, polenta in Milan, rye in Leipzig, and oats in Amsterdam and London. It suggests that in 1740 day laborers in Leipzig, Beijing, Suzhou, and Milan could barely keep body and soul together--if their work was not too strenuous, and if they did not have too many non-working dependents.

By contrast, male day laborers in London and Amsterdam appear to be living the life of Riley: only a quarter of their wages needed to be set aside for the basic caloric requirements, leaving the rest for dietary variety and fortification, clothing, shelter, dependents, entertainment, and so forth.

But this is if people in London ate oats. And people in London did not eat oats. Oats were for Scotsmen--and horses. Englishmen ate wheat bread. And calories from wheat-based bread were two to three times the cost of calories from oats.

So were workers in London in 1740 as miserably poor as workers in Milan, Leipzig, and Beijing, spending most if not all on their income on bare caloric maintenance in the form of the grain typical of their time and place? Or were the workers of London relatively rich--and deciding to spend their relative wealth on the superior taste and mouth feel of yeasty wheat bread rather than leaden oatcakes and on the associated symbolic declaration that they were proud and free Englishmen, not benighted barbarous Scots (or horses)?