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Adam Smith and Malthus, two younger Gradgrinds

The two little Gradgrinds are both named for well-known political economists. Adam Smith (1723-90) was the author of The Wealth of Nations and is often considered the father of laissez-faire capitalist thinking. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is best known for his work on the question of overpopulation, the 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, a controversial work that caused a public reaction against political economy.

Coketown, to which Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact… It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long…

Dickens's Coketown, a northern cotton-manufacturing city, is generally assumed to be Manchester, but he was somewhat more familiar with Birmingham than with the former city. Although Dickens toured Manchester and other northern towns—and had visited the town of Preston during its long strike, just months before the publication of Hard Times began—he did not have the intense knowledge of and identification with any of the northern cities that he did with London. An 1824 map of Manchester and a nineteenth-century map of Birmingham (exact date unknown) give a sense of the layout of each city.

Click on map for larger view


The general description of an industrial Hell that Dickens creates for Coketown are, however, based on an amalgam of the several such cities Dickens had visited, and have a good deal of allegorical power, as in the image of "interminable serpents of smoke." The industrial towns were certainly smoky, as shown in this view of Manchester from the Illustrated London News of August 20, 1842.

they lived upon the best, and bought fresh butter, and insisted on Mocha coffee, and rejected all but prime parts of meat, and yet were eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable.

Although in this passage the "gentlemen" of Coketown assert that the working class had access to the best foodstuffs and were dissatisfied in spite of it, the truth is quite different. Many workers could afford little to eat besides bread. Fresh butter, for instance, was all but unobtainable for the poor; instead, when they could afford it, they bought cheaper (and older) salted butter, preserved in casks. Mocha coffee is a high-quality type that was also unaffordable for the working classes; imports of coffee were highly taxed, and as a consequence the poor drank coffee that was mixed with the cheaper chicory.

Moreover, the adulteration of food was common in Victorian times. Coffee, for instance, might be cut with various burnt or roasted items, such as corn. Tea was similarly meddled with or the leaves resold after being used. Flour for bread was eked out with chalk or alum. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) offers a rather casual aside: "The commonest adulterations of milk are not of a hurtful character. It is a good deal thinned with water, and sometimes thickened with a little starch, or coloured with yolk of egg, or even saffron; but these processes have nothing murderous in them." More harmful adulterations included the use of poisonous red lead to color certain foods.

People who lived in the country or who had access to fresh foods from farms were not as subject to the vagaries of the commercial food supply as Victorian city dwellers. But those who were less well off, in particular, could not be confident in the purity or quality of the food they ate.

"What have you got in that bottle you are carrying? "Gin," said Mr. Bounderby. "Dear, no, sir! It's the nine oils."

Gradgrind's question, and Bounderby's assumption that Sissy Jupe is carrying a bottle of gin for her father, are typical of certain middle-class stereotypes of lower- or working-class habits in the mid-nineteenth century. Gin was considered a distinctly lower-class drink, available in disreputable "gin palaces" and thought to go hand in hand with other vices of the poor. The middle and upper classes were more likely to drink wine and fortified wines such as port and sherry.

Sissy's reply that she is carrying "the nine oils" seems to imply that she is somewhat shocked at the idea that she might have gin with her. The nine oils was a preparation mainly used in veterinary medicine, for treating horses, but circus performers also used it to rub over bruises. According to one nineteenth-century druggists' book, oils used in the preparation included train oil, oil of turpentine, oil of bricks, oil of amber, spirit of camphor, Barbadoes tar, and oil of vitriol.



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