This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the introduction of the industrial manufacture of gelatin. Prior to 1818, anyone who wanted to enjoy a dish which included gelatin, such as jellies or aspics, would have to spend a great deal of time extracting it from various animal sources. Therefore, only the affluent were able to enjoy special treats like jellies, since they had the staff available to do all the work necessary to create the crucial ingredient for such elegant dishes. Yet, this new industrial production was due primarily to the privations suffered in France during the Napoleonic Wars.
Jellies, from glue to health food to dessert . . .
It is known that in prehistoric times, some people who lived in caves in the area of the Dead Sea made a crude glue from animal tissues. The ancient Egyptians used a similar type of strong glue for wooden objects and as a binder for mural painting. That furniture glue and binder was derived from animal collagen which was probably acquired by boiling animal bones and hides. The ancient Greeks and Romans employed such glues in the making of their own furnishings and murals. Similar powerful glues, often known as "hide glues," were in wide use from ancient times right through the nineteenth century, across much of the Middle East and Europe. Hide glues were commonly used in furniture making and other types of wood working. Some cabinet-makers still use such glues for certain projects, even today.
Food scholars believe that various broths were made by boiling bones and animal skins from at least the first or second century, A. D. Those broths were probably made using bones and hides from the same animals as those which were used to make glue. Even before the Middle Ages, some cooks had discovered how to obtain an edible gelatinous material from the same sources. This skill was perfected until, by the fifteenth century, in England, gelatine had become a luxury ingredient for both sweet and savory dishes served to royalty and the upper echelons of the aristocracy. It was observed that people who were privileged to consume such dishes regularly tended to have much better health than those who did not. Though they did not known it at the time, the primary reason was that foods encased in gelatin were protected from spoilage since the gelatin excluded contact with the surrounding air. That may be why gelatine had earned a reputation as a health food. In addition, calves’ foot jelly, made by boiling calves or cows feet in water, was regularly recommended as a treatment for joint pain. It was actually very effective, though it was not until modern times that science has shown that it is the collagen in the jelly which eases pain in the joints.
In the mid-seventeenth century, some men of science had begun studying the properties of gelatin and were able to verify that it did have significant nutritional, as well as medicinal properties. Though protein would not be recognized or even basically understood until the eighteenth century, in the later decades of the seventeenth century, it was believed that any foods derived from animal sources were more nourishing than foods which were derived from vegetable sources. At that time, people who were known to eat a selection of animal products, including gelatin, were typically in better health than those who consumed fewer animal products. Thus, it was concluded that gelatin was a nourishing dish. Science had not yet discovered the bacteria and other air-borne pathogens which caused spoilage in many foods which were exposed to the open air, particularly without refrigeration. Therefore, the nutritional and medical value of gelatin was ascribed solely to the fact that it had an animal source.
From 1676 until 1679, the French inventor and physicist, Denis Papin, was working in London, with Robert Boyle, the noted Anglo-Irish inventor and man of science. In 1679, Papin built a machine which he called a "bone digester." This was a large closed vessel with a tightly fitting lid, similar to a modern-day pressure cooker, which was powered by steam. The bone digester was used to cook animal bones until they were very soft. After this intense, pressurized cooking, the bones produced both a rich stock and edible gelatin. The stock was used to prepare soups, while the gelatin could be used to make a number of jellied dishes. A couple of years later, having developed a new and more powerful version of his digester machine, Papin suggested to King Charles II that multiple large bone digesters could be used to produce an inexpensive but nourishing food source for the poor and indigent. There is no indication that King Charles II, or anyone else in Britain, pursued Denis Papin’s suggestions, though the design of his bone digester eventually led to the development of other steam-powered machines. Papin himself left England to take up a post in Germany, in 1687, where he developed other steam-driven machines, but did not continue to promote the benefits of pressure-cooked bones.
Papin’s bone digester was not widely implemented in Britain, or anywhere else, and it was nearly forgotten by the turn of the eighteenth century. But people still enjoyed dishes made with gelatin, if they had the means by which to acquire it. The production of gelatin was a very labor-intensive and malodorous task. In order to make gelatin, a large pot or kettle was filled with raw animal bones, hides, even ears and feet, covered with water and boiled for several hours. Typically, the bones, hide and feet used were those of cows and/or pigs, which apparently produced the highest volume of the best quality gelatin. After being left to boil for several hours, the pot would be removed from the fire and left to cool for at least twenty-four hours. During this time, the fat would rise to the top and begin to partially solidify. The fat would be skimmed off and set aside for other uses, or discarded. The bones would then be pulled out of the congealing gelatin which surrounded them and scraped clean. Those boiled bones might be discarded, but in larger households, they were often ground for use as fertilizer in the gardens. The remains of any hides, ears or feet would be scraped clean of the gelatin and then would probably be discarded, though they might also have been used for fertilizer. What remained in the kettle was nearly pure gelatin.
Cow and pig bones, hides and other parts were not the only sources of gelatin. From at least the seventeenth century, the Russians had discovered that the sounds, or the air or swim bladders, of sturgeon were also a rich source of gelatin. This substance was imported into Britain where it was known as isinglass. However, it was extremely expensive and was not widely used. Near the end of the eighteenth century, William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, developed a method by which isinglass could be made much more cheaply using the swim bladders of cod fish. By the turn of the nineteenth century, most of the isinglass used in Britain was made from cod, rather than the much more expensive Russian import. But most of this cod-derived isinglass was purchased by brewers and was used to clarify beer by removing any impurities. Another gelatin source in Britain was known as hartshorn, though it was made and used in much smaller quantities. Hartshorn gelatin was produced by boiling the scrapings of the antlers of male red deer. Hartshorn jelly was seldom used for the making of food dishes. It was more often used as a medicine, and was a popular treatment for intestinal complaints, particularly diarrhea.
The word gelatine can be traced back to France in the Middle Ages. It was derived from the Latin word gelatus, which meant stiff or frozen. In fifteenth-century England, the substance was most often known as gelatine or gely, based on the French word. By the eighteenth century, the term gelatin was used as often as gelatine, and the word gely was more often spelled as jelly. Both gelatin and jelly were in use during the Regency, though by then, "gelatin" usually meant the basic ingredient which was used to make jellies. "Jelly" was typically used to refer to the sweet, colorful and elegant dishes which were served as part of the dessert course of grand meals.
In Britain, jellied dishes were typically made by melting some gelatin in a pot, then adding various other ingredients to the liquid. Savory jellies, such as aspics, were appearing on upper-class English tables from the late eighteenth century. Spices and colorings would be added to the liquid gelatin, then the mixture would be poured into a mold which contained any number of whole or sliced ingredients, from eggs to meat or fish to vegetables. The famous chef, Antonin Carême, often used large molded savory aspics as centerpieces for the elegant meals he prepared. However, desserts were particularly popular in England, and quite a lot of gelatin was used to make dessert jellies. These dishes were prepared in a manner similar to savory aspics. Some gelatin would be melted in a pot, to which would be added sweeteners, flavorings and colorings. This mixture might be poured into molds, on its own, or over various slices of fruit. Some of these molded jellies could be several inches or more in height and might have several tiers, each a different color and filled with slices of a specific fruit. Another popular type of dessert jelly was made in the same way, but rather than being poured into a large mold, layers of colored jelly would be poured into individual transparent dessert glasses and allowed to set. Prior to serving, these pretty layered jellies might be garnished with a slice of fruit and/or a dollop of whipped cream, among other decoration.
While sweet and savory jellies made from gelatin were being served on the upper-class dinner tables of Britain, during the Napoleonic Wars, gelatin was being studied for less elegant purposes on the other side of the English Channel. In France, as the British blockade began to take its toll, nutritious food, particularly meat, was becoming harder and harder to import into the country. Several French scientists discovered that gelatin was rich in protein, and would thus make a nourishing foodstuff which could serve as a meat replacement, if it could be produced in large quantities. In 1803, and again in 1818, Anton Alexis Cadet de Vaux, the administrator of the Military Hospital in Paris, published reports of his studies on the value of "gelatine produced from bones" as a cheap source of protein. Over that period, a commission of French scientists, headed by a chemist by the name of d’Arcel, used those two reports to aid them in compiling the available methods of manufacturing gelatin on a large scale.
Despite the diligence of the gelatin-manufacturing commission in France, it seems they did not identify a feasible method of industrial gelatin production while Napoleon was still fighting most of Europe. But in 1818, a new company, Coignet & Cie., was founded in Lyons, France, where the company set up a plant in Barabon-sur-Rhône. This factory was constructed for the purpose of producing gelatin on an industrial scale, presumably using information which had been compiled by the commission. It is not known if this plant used some version of Papin’s steam digester. It is known that this new factory used only what were called "side split" or glue leather in the making of gelatin. Such hides would typically be acquired from tanneries. Though the ready-made gelatin which we use today is sold in granular form, such was not the case in the early nineteenth century. Coignet & Cie. produced gelatin in thick sheets. Chunks would have to be cut or broken from the sheet in order to use the gelatin. It would not be until the early twentieth century that these gelatin sheets would be ground up so that the gelatin could be sold as granules in small packets.
Though Coignet & Cie. was the first company to produce gelatin on an industrial scale, it appears that soon similar plants were constructed in other European countries, including Britain. The dates and locations of the establishment of such plants are not known. However, the basic requirements for siting a gelatin plant include close proximity to one or more tanneries in order to reduce transport costs, a steady source of fresh water, a location at some distance from most residential areas due to the unpleasant odors from the plant, and a large supply of coal or wood to fuel the boilers. Another advantage was a location near a seaport or a navigable river for ease in shipping out the finished product. A preferred location for a gelatin plant was within a large forested area. It was understood that a large forest would not only moderate the surrounding environment, keeping it more temperate, but the trees of that forest would pull a great deal of dust out of the air, thus reducing the dust to which the drying gelatin sheets would be exposed. Gelatin would not set up properly in warm and humid conditions. Therefore, it was believed that gelatin made in the cooler months was of superior quality. In fact, some factories only made gelatin during the winter months, to ensure the best quality.
It is quite possible that commercially produced gelatin was available in Britain in the last years of the Regency, though initially, it was probably imported from France. Eventually, there were gelatin factories in Britain which produced gelatin at a cost which most people could afford. With all the time and effort needed to produce gelatin eliminated, jellies, aspics and other gelatin-based dishes could be enjoyed well beyond upper-class households. Dear Regency Authors, might this new, inexpensive gelatin make it possible for some of your less affluent characters, in an upcoming romance, to enjoy a pretty jelly for dessert, or a rich aspic as part of the main course? Perhaps the heroine is delighted to find that her local grocer has begun to carry gelatin sheets from which she can purchase a small block for use in making a pretty jelly dessert. Mayhap she is making it for the hero? Then again, might one or more of your characters be involved in establishing and/or running a gelatin factory somewhere in Britain? Will there be problems with those who live nearby complaining about the smell? Or, might the factory be so successful that the family soon becomes affluent? How else might the introduction of the industrial production of gelatin set up a Regency romance?