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Modern History Sourcebook:
Accounts of the "Potato Revolution," 1695 - 1845

William Salmon, The Family Dictionary, or Household Companion, 1695

The Leaves of Potato are manifestly hot and dry in the beginning of the second degree, as manifestly appear by their taste. But the roots are temperate in respect to heat or cold, dryness and moisture: They Astringe, are moderately Diuretic, Stomatic, Chylisic, Analeptic, and Spermatogenetic. They nourish the whole body, restore in consumptions, and provoke lust. The preparations of the potato are: (1) boiled, baked or roasted roots, (2) the broth, (3) the blood. The Prepared Roots: They stop fluxes of the bowels, nourish much, and restore in a pining consumption; being boiled, baked or roasted, they are eaten with good butter, salt, juice of oranges or lemons, and double refined sugar, as common food: they increase seed and provoke lust, causing fruitfulness in both sexes: and stop all sorts of fluxes of the belly. The Broth of the Roots: They are first boiled soft in fair water, then taken out and peeled, afterwards put into the same water again, and boiled till the broth becomes as thick, as very thick cream, or thin Hasty Pudding: some mix an equal quantity of milk with it, and so make broth; others after they are peeled, instead of putting them into the waters they were boiled in, boil them only in milk, till they are dissolved as aforesaid, and the broth is made pleasant with sweet butter, a little salt and double refined sugar, and so eaten. It has all the virtues of the roots eaten in substance, nourishes more, and restores not only in an atrophy, or pining consumption, but also in an ulceration of the lungs. The Blood of the Potato: It is made as the Blood of Satyrion, Parsnips, Eddo's Comfrey, and other like roots. It may be taken to a spoonful or two, morning, noon, and night, in a glass of choice Canary, Tent, Alicant, old Malaga, or other good Wines. It restores in deep consumption of all kinds, nourishes to admiration, is good against impotency in men and barrenness in women, and has all the other virtues of both the prepared roots and broth.

William Somerville, Fable of the Two Springs, 1725

In the course of a very few years, the consumption of potatoes in this Kingdom will be almost as general and universal as that of wheat.

David Henry, The Complete English Farmer, 1771

Certainly, potatoes might be used instead of rye as a substitute for bread, and of this discovery the poor may avail themselves in time of dearth.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

The vegetable food of the original inhabitants of the Americas, though from their want of industry not very abundant, was not altogether so scanty. It consisted in corn, yams, potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, etc., plants which were then altogether unknown in Europe, and which have never since been very much esteemed in it, or supposed to yield a sustenance equal to what is drawn from the common sorts of grain and pulse, which have been cultivated in this part of the world time out of mind.

The food produced by a field of potatoes is not inferior in quantity to that produced by a field of rice, and much superior to what is produced by a field of wheat. Twelve thousand weight of potatoes from an acre of land is not a greater produce than two thousand weight of wheat. The food or solid nourishment, indeed, which can be drawn from each of those two plants, is not altogether in proportion to their weight, on account of the watery nature of potatoes. Allowing, however, half the weight of this root to go to water, a very large allowance, such an acre of potatoes will still produce six thousand weight of solid nourishment, three times the quantity produced by the acre of wheat. An acre of potatoes is cultivated with less expense than an acre of wheat; the fallow, which generally precedes the sowing of wheat, more than compensating the hoeing and other extraordinary culture which is always given to potatoes. Should this root ever become in any part of Europe, like rice in some rice countries, the common and favorite vegetable food of the people, so as to occupy the same proportion of the lands in tillage which wheat and other sorts of grain for human food do at present, the same quantity of cultivated land would maintain a much greater number of people, and the laborers being generally fed with potatoes, a greater surplus would remain after replacing all the stock and maintaining all the labor employed in cultivation. A greater share of this surplus, too, would belong to the landlord. Population would increase, and rents would rise much beyond what they are at present.

In some parts of Lancashire it is pretended, I have been told, that bread of oatmeal is a heartier food for laboring people than wheaten bread, and I have frequently heard the same doctrine held in Scotland. I am, however, somewhat doubtful of the truth of it. The common people in Scotland, who are fed with oatmeal, are in general neither so strong, nor so handsome as the same rank of people in England who are fed with wheaten bread. They neither work so well, nor look so well; and as there is not the same difference between the people of fashion in the two countries, experience would seem to show that the food of the common people in Scotland is not so suitable to the human constitution as that of their neighbors of the same rank in England. But it seems to be otherwise with potatoes. The chairmen, porters, and coalheavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be the greater part of them from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root. No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.

It is difficult to preserve potatoes through the year, and impossible to store them like corn, for two or three years together. The fear of not being able to sell them before they rot discourages their cultivation, and is, perhaps, the chief obstacle to their ever becoming in any great country, like bread, the principal vegetable food of all the different ranks of the people.... The circumstances of the poor through a great part of England cannot surely be so much distressed by any rise in the price of poultry, fish, wild-fowl, or venison, as they must be relieved by the fall in that of potatoes.

Thomas Ruggles, Annals of Agriculture, 1792

Everybody knows that bread covers at least two-thirds of the expenditure on food. A laborer's wage must be at least sufficient to maintain himself and his family, and must allow for something over. Were the wages not to do so, then the race of such workers would not last beyond the first generation. In Great Britain, therefore, the wages of the laborer must be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to bring up a family, and the price of grain must determine everything in regard to the economics of labor. However, failure to implement this level of wages may, perhaps, be mitigated by the adoption by the poor of the potato, a nutritious and cheap substitute. Nonetheless, the poor will not eat potatoes if they can get anything else, for the daintiness and ignorance of the poor in regard to the wonderments of this root has been the chief obstacle to its adoption.

David Davies, The Case of the Laborers in Husbandry, 1795

Today the whole laboring people have neither meat nor cheese nor milk nor beer in sufficient quantities, they eat white bread where everybody else eats it. Though the potato is an excellent root, deserving to be brought into general use, yet it seems not likely that the use of it should ever be general in this country [England]. There are three reasons for this. First, in richer counties the poor have neither the garden to grow the potato, nor milk to eat it with. This is due to engrossing, the little scrap of garden left to him he uses for a variety of vegetables (but where buttermilk can be got, potatoes are eaten). Second, the poor allege that they cannot perform their tasks without white bread, and they must have it of the most nourishing kind. Third, the appearance of the potato, full of eyes, resembles those afflicted with leprosy, and the poor irrationally believe that the potato is thus the cause of so many lepers.

The Times, July 11, 1795

The solution to the lack of grain for our rising population is simple. The poor should adopt the diet of Lancashire, with its abundant potatoes and oatmeal porridge. Also, the poor can eat a soup of water and potatoes. If a bread is required, one of corn and potatoes is both pleasant and nutritious.

Sir Frederick M. Eden, The State of the Poor, 1797

The Naturalists of Queen Anne's time would probably have been astonished to hear, what the Board of Agriculture mentions as a fact of the greatest importance, that potatoes and water alone, with common salt, can nourish men completely.

Ralph Leycester, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. 29, 1798

It is with great satisfaction that I can report that wages are now 8s. per week, having only increased 1s. in twenty-five years, and that, considering the use of potatoes and turnips, the laborer is better off than before. Potatoes are in great use here, which necessarily lessens the consumption of bread.

J. C. Curwen, The Rural Economy of Ireland, 1818

The first and most important object in the rural economics of Ireland is the crop of potatoes, for on these exclusively depends the existence of all the lower orders not resident in towns. The potato, which in some points of view, may justly be regarded as one of the greatest blessings to our species, is capable of operating the greatest calamities, when it exclusively furnishes the food on which a community is content to exist, for as the cultivation of a single statute acre may successfully and easily be attended by one individual and as its produce on an average would give food for at least ten persons the year round, at 7 lb. each day, which may be considered as an abundant allowance, what chance is there for manual exertion in such a society among whom a patrimonial aversion to labor and an habitual attachment to idleness are paramount to every other consideration.

Sir George Nicholls, The Farmer's Guide, 1841

The diet of the poor consists chiefly of milk, oatmeal, potatoes and vegetables. The potato is the all-important food, oatmeal a quite secondary one, and bacon a rare luxury.

Rev. James Mulligan, Description of Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, 1845

The small farmers live on potatoes and milk. It is considered that he is a very fortunate man if he has milk for his family. He sells his butter and never uses oatmeal in his house. It is thus obvious that oatmeal plays a quite secondary role in the household economy of the poorer classes, and that the primary meal consists of potatoes.

Report of the Devon Commission for Ireland, 1845

The potato enabled a large family to live on food produced in great quantities at a trifling cost, and, as the result, the increase of the people has been gigantic.


Source:

From: William Salmon, The Family Dictionary, or Household Companion (1695), p. 265; William Somerville, Fable of the Two Springs (1725), p. 141; Rev. James Mulligan, Description of Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan (1845), p. 894; Sir George Nicholls, The Farmer's Guide (1841), p. 165; J. C. Curwen, The Rural Economy of Ireland (1818), pp. 107, 121; Report of the Devon Commission (1845), p. 1116; David Davies, The Case of the Laborers in Husbandry (1795), p. 34; Thomas Ruggles, Annals of Agriculture, 17 (1792), pp. 205, 353; David Henry, The Complete English Farmer (1771), p. 275; Sir Frederick M. Eden, The State of the Poor (1797), p. 895; The Times, 11 July 1795; Ralph Leycester, Annals of Agriculture, 29 (1798), p. 247; Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources, (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. VI: The Age of Enlightenment.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


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© Paul Halsall, January 1999
halsall@fordham.edu