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3 Nov 2020

Jam, jelly or preserves

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (South & West)
A straight-sided jar wrapped in grey waxed paper, with a brown paper lid tied on with string. On the front is an oval cream-coloured paper label on which is printed in black Wilkin & Sons Ltd Fine-Cut Marmalade, with the royal warrant coat of arms in the centre.
In our modern times we’re lucky not to have to look too far ahead for our nutritional needs. But what about the cooks and housewives of the past? How did they approach the coming of winter?

Working in historic houses brings with it a strong sense of time – time standing still, time passing, and in some cases time running out. Along with this is an awareness of the daily round of life and the way in which people respond to the changing of the seasons, looking back, looking ahead or just living in the moment. As autumn moves into winter I find myself sparing a thought for those cooks and housewives of the past who toiled to turn the bounty of summer into food laid down for the long, possibly leaner, months ahead.

A round, shiny, yellow metal pan with a darker curved metal handle arching over the top.
Jam pan

The ultimate symbol of this activity is the jam pan, standing strong in corners of Trust kitchens everywhere. Our collections are bursting with them. Larger kitchens such as Brodie Castle’s may have several, hinting at the teams of kitchen or still room maids who stewed, stirred and set produce from the estate and kitchen garden into copious quantities of preserves to see the household through the winter. Our smaller houses bear similar evidence, with the housewife’s single jam pan accompanied by collections of small upright stoneware jam jars. Each jar has a neat groove under the rim to tightly secure the string that would hold the waxed paper lid in place.

A view inside a small cupboard showing a group of white ceramic jars.
Jars of home-made jam at the Tenement House

At the Tenement House in Glasgow we have a whole collection of jam jars, many still containing ancient jam that has darkened with time and slowly solidified. The handwritten labels bear the names of the jam and the dates they were made: Victoria plum jam from September 1947; strawberry from 1961; rhubarb and ginger from 1963. I do wonder why they weren’t eaten. Were these bad years for jam, or were they simply tucked away at the back of a cupboard and forgotten? Perhaps part of the Tenement House jam cache represents Miss Toward’s own personal war effort, a response to the Ministry of Food propaganda: Help Win the War on the Kitchen Front. Jam was rationed from 1941 until 1953 but was felt to be so important that women were encouraged to make their own, and the Women’s Institute was drafted in to help with larger-scale production.

While the evidence of home cooking and food preservation is everywhere in Trust houses, so too is evidence of the road towards commercial food production. From the deplorable time of slave-worked Caribbean sugar plantations in the 18th-century, Scotland was a major importer of sugar, channelling it towards manufacturers as well as direct to the tea table. Although slavery was at an end by the mid- to late 19th century, it’s a sobering thought that mass producers of preserves such James Keiller & Son of Dundee and Stewart & Young of Glasgow were still benefiting from the creation of earlier, slave-dependent, trade links. Both companies processed vast quantities of imported sugar, creating jam and marmalade for the British market, at home and overseas. In fact, jam and marmalade were so popular they were manufactured and sold all over Britain, helping sustain the working classes through their hard industrial labours with the accompaniment of similarly sugar-laden tea.

Like many aspects of food history, jam has gone from the food of the rich (when sugar cost the earth) to the food of the ‘common man’. The jam pan has left the kitchen, except for artisan producers or as a lifestyle choice, and given way to the boiling vats of mass production. So much for my rosy autumn idyll of seasonal change and preserving nature’s bounty! As with most history it’s more complex, and the experience of the rural housewife or the cook in a large household was no comparison to the life of the female worker in an industrial city feeding her family on cheap shop-bought goods. Household economy, then as now, comes in all shapes and sizes.

What is the difference between jam, jelly and preserves? Very little, it turns out. They all require a healthy dose of fruit, plenty of sugar, water and heat. After that, it all depends whether the fruit is cut, crushed or whole. These days, however you prefer it, it’s a little a bit of winter comfort, available all year round.

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