August 8, 2011

How many calories did they eat in a day in the 1860s?

This very unscientific study was inspired by rumors I have heard about the caloric intake of people during the 1860s. It is almost impossible to figure out an exact number due to the high levels of variety. Tastes, preferences, food availability, costs and personal habits can make a huge difference in the amount of food consumed.

This list was printed in a British book for housewives and was intended to give new housewives an idea of how much food to buy per person. It is a  very rough guideline. It does not take into account slight variations in amount such as it is recommended to buy 1/2 pound of sugar for a person but in a family of two, one person may eat 1/4 of it and the other 3/4. It also could vary depending on the different varieties of food, 1 pound of chicken has less calories than one pound of beef.

If there was a difference in the caloric counts of different articles, I picked an 1860s appropriate variety with a median caloric count.

  • 1/2 pound Sugar (white)
  • 1/2 pound Cheese (cheddar)
  • 1/2 pound Butter
  • 1 quart Milk (Whole Milk)
  • 8 pounds Bread 
  • 6 pounds Meat (3 pounds Chicken, 3 pounds Beef)
  • 1 gallon Beer (for a woman) 7 quarts for a Man
  • Potatoes 
The totals came to 18,250 calories per week for women which comes out to 2,607 calories per day and 25,162 calories per week for men or 3,594 per day.

These totals seem pretty decent, considering the amount of physical labor that many jobs back then required and the amount of walking that people did. Obviously, no one was eating exactly like this and the totals don't include vegetables, fruits, baked goods, ect. However, I feel it is a good guideline for the items in a common diet in Britain at the time, especially since the high calorie items listed most likely made up the majority of the diets then. It is also interesting to note that a large percentage of the calories came from drinks.

( Besides finding out this information for the 1860s, I would love to be able to do a real study of Colonial caloric intake, as I am constantly bombarded with the "fact" that people ate around 6,000 calories a day in the winter. While possible, I feel that would be a ridiculous amount of food to preserve. However, if the people who say this really mean that people "consumed" 6,000 calories a day, including high calorie drinks such as cider and beer, this seems much more possible.)

All in all, this was just for fun and should be taken with a huge pile of salt. The foods listed and the amounts of food given probably give us a better picture of what an 1860s diet looked like than anything else.

**Note: The image at the top is from The Photographic History of the War in Ten Volumes (Vol. 8) by  Francis Trevelyan Miller and Robert Sampson Lanier from 1911.The list is from Warne's Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book, published in 1868.


  1. That's so interesting! I'd never really thought about it, but how much people ate back then really was an important part of daily life. Thanks for a really neat post!

  2. Its cool to see what they were eating and what was a common amount.

  3. Very interesting! Gallon of beer a week! Haha! I haven't dranken that much in my whole life (not even a whole cup!). :) Though, I suppose they didn't have such easy access to other sorts of drink (juice, lemonade, etc.).

  4. Doesn't anybody else find 8 to 16 pounds of bread a week rather outrageous? That's over a pound a day for a woman! Everything else seemed to be within reason, in my opinion! Very interesting post!

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