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.

Dim sum chefs at work, Taipei

Dim sum chefs at work, Taipei

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.

Rolling the dim sum dough

Rolling the dough

Cutting and filling

Cutting and filling


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.

How did this expression come about? One explanation;  a ‘staff’ acted as a walking stick which ‘supported’ people as they walked. 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…

For more information on bakers, see Tracing Your Trade and Craftsman Ancestors.      Click here     (Pen and Sword)  or  here  (Amazon).

open air earth oven, Machuca

Outdoor mud oven in Machuca, Chile. Throughout history, kitchens were often away from main buildings to protect homes from fires.   In stately homes in England, residents were used to eating cold food. Why? Because it took so long to come from the kitchen. © Adèle Emm