Monday, April 25, 2022

Fewer muffin street sellers by 1896

The decline of muffin street sellers was described in the following 1896 article. The muffins were still made by older ladies in their poor homes and sold to stores or a few remaining street sellers, who had a hard time making a living. Earlier that century there were 500 muffin street vendors in London with their tinkling little bells, traditionally starting on Oct 15.

"… muffin-sellers were (some hundred years ago) a recognised and respectable portion of the working class community. They enjoyed certain privileges, they were entitled to wear a uniform, and they held their heads high, as became their dignity and position.
The muffin-bell was proudly handed down from mother to daughter, and the silver-haired grandam loved to tell … she had flitted through the snow, that my Lord ___ should not be deprived of the contents of his silver muffineer.
Then, the merry tinkle of the muffin-bell, as the shades of twilight fell softly over the dusky Thames, and the gloaming shrouded Belgravian squares, was the token for one and all to lay aside their work, to close the curtains, and to gather round the board, where “muffins, smoking hot” reminded every class to thrust business cares aside and enjoy the cosy comforts of domestic life.

neither the banker, nor the mechanic, nor artisan has time or inclination for dallying with such tender morsels. A hurried meal precedes a still more hurried rush to club or lecture-room, and the lonely spouse finds comfort cold in finishing the leathery remains of the neglected muffin.
And so it has come to pass that those who daily rung their bell to herald the approach of the crisp cake in its snow-white cloth are only shades of the past. They have vanished into oblivion; and whether they died from despair, or neglect, or starvation, there is not one to tell the tale.

Their successors are of another order altogether. The principal muffin trade is done by the great bakeries, but even they do not make the cakes at home. It is given out to those who have retained the monopoly for years, and who supply according to order, at wholesale price, from a recipe specially their own. … in a two-roomed tenement in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood. An old woman bade me enter…
“Things are not as they used to be," she grumbled as I was installed before a cheery fire. “When I was a girl, the shop for which I worked sent out ten girls regularly in the afternoon to supply customers, and now they don't employ one."
“You seldom see a girl muffin-seller nowadays," I remarked ; "they are mostly sold by men. I wonder why?"
"They think too much of themselves," she replied scornfully ; "they can gad about with Howers and such like; but as for simple muffins for simple folks' teas, that's quite beneath their notice." “Do the men go out on their own account, or are they sent by the larger bakers?”
“On their own account, mostly,” she answered. “A man who is out of work may make an odd shilling now and then by muffin-selling in the winter, but it is no use trying at any other season."
“And does he buy from the baker, or direct from you?”
“From me. I and a few others still supply the trade on wholesale terms, same as to bakers - that is, 1s. 2d. a score of muffins, and is 2d. two score of crumpets; these they sell at a penny and a halfpenny each, but even so, a shilling is a good day's profit now."
"Where does your profit come in?" I asked.
She shook her head sagely. “It's the way I make them. It is the family secret, and they do say as it has been handed down for generations. Anyway, my grandmother gave it to me when dying. Said she, 'It may make your fortune; it made mine!'"
“And has it made yours ?”
The old dame chuckled grimly.
"There were seven of us, and I am the only one as won't die in the Workhouse. But business is very slack. I only supply two shops and some half a dozen families regularly. I can remember the time when I had to be up at two every morning to get my baking done before the shops opened. Life was life then."

Their surroundings were so unsavoury, I was not surprised bakers led their customers to believe that what they sold from snowy counters in spotless aprons was made on the premises; otherwise their goods would linger long on their hands.

Men muffin-sellers I found in scattered quarters, who sandwiched this calling with costermongering and street-hawking. One I met was a character. On wet days, so he informed me, when soaked vegetables would not "take,” he frequented the streets where old maids dwelt, and found they were partial to a muffin for tea.“
"How do you keep them dry?" I inquired.
I fold a sheet of brown-paper between the folds of the cloth, and keep them well covered. They are as dry as dried herrings!”
You have to pay for your tray and cloth, “I hire them from a shop, where they let me have them for 2d. I can get a dozen muffins for 7d., and twelve crumpets for half that sum. The profit is good if people's appetites were. But that is so changeable. Sometimes, the cakes go off like sky-rockets; sometimes, not one can I sell the blessed afternoon. … [many tragic stories of decreasing sales] …muffin-selling as a trade is rapidly on the decline …does little to keep the wolf from the door. It has no status like other trades…

No greater proof of its fall can be given that the difficulty of procuring a genuine muffin-bell. Once they were in constant demand, and in consequence were cheap; once a muffin-seller took as much pride in the silvery tone of his bell as he did in the spotless whitness of his cap and apron. Now, any crack tongued arrangement will do; and the awful jingle-jangle that fills our street sometimes makes one wonder that the departed shades of muffin-sellers do not appear in mute expostulation that their successors are thus allowed to profane their once dearly cherished haunts."
"The Trade of the Tray and Bell" by T. Sparrow in Quiver 1896.
Complete article HERE
Past post about that tiny muffin bell starting Oct 15 HERE
Muffin rings and other posts HERE

Upcoming talk on English Muffins by William Rubel -
Ap 28 Thu 12-1:30 Brexit, French Bread, & English Muffins. “Two 18th-century English breads offer us insights into 21st century politics: English French Bread and English Muffins. Talk plus recipes.” Rubel's Bread History Seminar. William Rubel HERE TAPE HERE



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