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White Flour and the American Family

Flour was one of the earliest products in America to become industrialized. The commercialization of flour was to play a critical role in transforming the lives of women and the structure of domestic life in America.

Automated flour mills began appearing just after the close of the Revolutionary War. These mills required about half the number of laborers required by traditional grist mills, and the new technology produced a finer, whiter flour than had been possible with more traditional methods. The high price of white flour, combined with reduced labor costs, made commercial mills a booming business in closing years of the eighteenth century.

White flour, stripped of its germ and bran, did not readily deteriorate during shipping. Therefore, most of this early white flour was produced for export to war-ravaged Europe; very little commercial flour was sold domestically during this period. American families continued to grow and process their own grain, and locally-produced whole-grain corn and wheat meal continued to be staple foods.

The domestic production and use of whole-grain flour required the contributions of each member of a household. Men and boys were traditionally given the job of hand-grinding corn and wheat. If the grain was to be hauled to a mill for grinding, this was father’s job. Because the grain began to deteriorate quickly after milling, the tough jobs of hauling or hand-grinding grains kept husbands and sons busy throughout the year. Mother had it a little easier, because baking with coarse flour was a straightforward process: liquid and leavening were added to the meal, and the batter was then baked or fried into a simple quick bread.

The booming export market for American flour eventually collapsed when the Napoleonic hostilities in Europe ceased. At the same time, the opening of several major canals in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states made it cheaper to transport flour domestically, while also making the small-scale production of flour less profitable. So flour from merchant mills began to replace the product of local grist mills in the early nineteenth century. By the outbreak of the Civil War, flour milling was the leading American industry, and homegrown and locally-ground grains had largely disappeared from American tables.

Commercial white flour did not deteriorate as rapidly as home-grown flour. Therefore, it did not need to be continually hauled and milled; large quantities could be purchased at a time and stored. The switch to store-bought flour relieved men and boys of one of their most time-consuming domestic chores, the grinding and hauling of flour.

White flour was also used very differently than whole-meal flour. White flour could be made into pastries, cakes, and white, fluffy loaves leavened with yeast. Soon, quick breads came to be regarded as fare fit only for the lower classes, while white bread became one of the first “status symbols” of the industrial period in America. Unfortunately, cake baking and the production of yeast breads required much time, heavy labor, and attention to detail. All this work, of course, fell exclusively to the housewife.

In short, the advent of industrialized flour meant that the nineteenth-century housewife was spending a lot more of her time working in the kitchen than her grandmother had, while the role of her husband and sons in domestic activity began to disappear.

The switch to white flour helped to make the industrial-era American home into a place of idleness for men and children, but where “woman’s work is never done.”

(Cowan 46-53)

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Filed under 18th Century, 19th Century