How did your baker ancestor work? Old practices from the modern world….
Bakers were vital to our ancestors’ lives. Until the mid-20th century, most people ate a loaf of bread a day especially if they worked as manual labourers.
Page 111 of The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts (1806) describes a team of bakers making biscuits. It was a very modern concept with each baker taking on one task and passing the half-made biscuits to the next in line.
Exactly the same practice is shown here at a dim sum restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan. Each chef has a role to play: making dough; rolling it out and cutting it; filling it; sealing it; cooking it. Their individual expertise ensures customers wait as short a time as possible.
The bread of life
The satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) uses the expression in Section Four of A Tale of A Tub (1704) ‘Bread… is the staff of life’. However, his use of the idiom was preceded 1708-1710 by Bible commentator, non-conformist minister Matthew Henry (1662-1714) who wrote ‘bread, which strengthens man’s heart, and is therefore called the staff of life’ whilst explaining the meaning of Psalm 104. All very hi-falluting!
My father used to say it every time we passed a pub called ‘The Staff of Life’, which could, of course, be referring to ale! Several pubs around the country have this moniker, one in Todmorden, Yorkshire, another in Mowsley, near Lutterworth, Leicestershire and one in Stoke, Staffordshire.
An explanation for the expression is comparing a staff which acted as a walking stick to bread which supported life. Until the mid 19th Century (later in many areas) it was dangerous to health to drink water so perhaps ale was the staff of life! Whimsy perhaps…