In a new Radio 4 documentary, food journalist Andrew Webb is to tell the fascinating story of the nation’s changing shopping basket. Here, writing for History Extra, he reveals nine ways in which our food shopping habits have changed over the decades: from postwar austerity to the rise of frozen foods…
In 1947 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) began recording the prices of everyday items on a ‘national shopping list’, to help calculate inflation. Through to today the list is updated every year: new products are added, while others are quietly dropped.
As the prices of the various items in the basket change over time, so does the total cost of the basket, thus movements in consumer price inflation indices represent the changing cost of the shopping basket. By looking into these imaginary baskets we can build up a picture of the changing shopping and eating habits of postwar Britain. Here are some of the highlights…
1) Wild rabbit anyone?
That first list from 1947 contains such things as small white loaf, wild rabbit, tin of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, prunes, tea, cocoa and condensed milk. It also features Sild, or small herrings, which were sold in tins.
2) Cold comfort for cans
In the 1940s hardly anybody owned a fridge, so tinned food was enormously popular. This explains the presence of canned fish and condensed milk in the basket. Food such as fresh meat and bread, meanwhile, were shopped for daily by the housewife, and carried back home by hand.
Baked beans appeared in the first basket (in 1947) alongside other tinned ingredients such as peas. By 1974 canned tomatoes were also present, as was plenty of canned fruit. But by 2009 the only cans on the list were tomatoes, sweetcorn and baked beans, marking the can’s fall from grace.
3) It’s always time for tea
Unsurprisingly, tea has appeared – in one form or another – in every basket since 1947. Initially this was in the form of loose-leaf tea – teabags did not appear in the basket until 1980.
Sadly, loose leaf was removed in 2002, reflecting a decline in sales. Herbal and fruit teas were added in 2001, but remained for just one year. By 2003 there were only plain old teabags in the basket.
4) A slice of history
Corned beef in cans was present in the first basket in 1947, and by 1980 appeared as two distinct versions: sliced and canned. By 1993 it was gone, replaced by the suspicious-sounding ‘canned meat’. This reflected the move from tinned and potted meats to items such as pâté, pies and charcuterie.
5) Jam on your Weetabix?
Breakfast cereals first entered the basket in 1952. In 1987 oats were taken out and replaced by muesli, perhaps reflecting the 1980s obsession with fibre and jogging. Muesli was quietly dropped in 2006, however.
Perhaps the strangest thing I uncovered while making the programme is that when products like Weetabix and Shredded Wheat were launched, they were intended almost as a bread substitute. Consequently, their early packaging recommended serving with jam or cheese, or in Shredded Wheat’s case, a poached egg. You’ll have to listen to the programme to find out what I thought of this serving suggestion…
6) Bread goes garlic
Another staple that’s been in the basket right from the beginning is the white, sliced loaf. In 1962 ‘sliced and unsliced’ were added, and in 2006 brown bread appeared. Pitta breads were added in 2000, only to come out in 2010 and be replaced by garlic bread. The baguette was added in 2001, only to come out four years later.
7) A fresh perspective
Yoghurt first appeared in the 1974 basket, later joined by fromage frais in 1993, flavoured milk in 1997, and chilled pot dessert in 2001. Baby milk formula was added in 2003, and pro-biotic drinks in 2008. Losses in the dairy section over the years include UHT milk, TT (Tuberculin Tested) milk, and reduced-cost welfare milk.
8) For mash get Smash!
Invented in the 1960s, Smash appeared in the 1974 basket due to a huge increase in sales driven by the famous adverts featuring Martian puppets. In my programme you can hear an exclusive interview with production designer Peter Richardson, who reveals a little-known fact about them.
Smash was removed from the basket in 1987, replaced with frozen oven chips.
9) Sea food and eat it
These first appeared in the 1962 basket, alongside other processed and canned fish such as kippers and sardines. Frozen prawns were added in 1987, but removed a year later, and were not seen again until 2002.
By the 1990s canned tuna appears, alternating with canned salmon.
As you can see, the story of what’s in each year’s basket isn’t just about inflation, or even economics, but the products we’ve always adored, and those we loved and left. Behind this are massive social and technological developments that changed what we ate, and how we shopped. It is the story of us, in a basket.
The Inflating Shopping Basket airs on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 18 January at 1.30pm. To find out more, click here.
To read more from Andrew, visit www.foodjournalist.co.uk.