Modern History Sourcebook:
Accounts of the "Potato Revolution," 1695 - 1845
William Salmon, The Family Dictionary, or Household
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
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.
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
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
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