What’s the History of Bar Snacks?

Smith's Crisps (via Wikimedia Commons)

In our email newslet­ter (sub­scribe!) we asked if any­one had any ques­tions they’d like us to look into with a view to a series of ‘notes and queries’ type posts of which this is the first.

Q: I wanted to ask about bar snacks and how they’ve developed over time – what have bars served along with beers over the decades? –Kyle, Bolivia

That’s a big ques­tion, Kyle, and the answer might fill a book, so we’ll lim­it our­selves to con­sid­er­ing the kinds of nib­bles that might have been eat­en with­out cut­lery, while stand­ing at the bar. For obvi­ous rea­sons, we’ve also focused most­ly on the UK.

Hogarth's Pieman, adapted by George Cruikshank from a detail in the 1750 painting 'The March to Finchley'.

Hen­ry May­hew’s Lon­don Labour and the Lon­don Poor records var­i­ous exam­ples of peo­ple who made their liv­ing sell­ing snacks on the street and in pub­lic hous­es, so we know that, in the 1850s, pub-goers were eat­ing pick­led whelks (‘not to fill them­selves, but for a rel­ish’), boiled green peas, fried fish, pies and sheep trot­ters. In short, any­thing that could be sold in the street and did­n’t require cut­lery was prob­a­bly being eat­en in pubs.

Despite con­stant pres­sure from tem­per­ance cam­paign­ers, who want­ed alco­hol only to be served with food, things stayed more-or-less the same for almost the next cen­tu­ry. In Bolton just before World War IIMass Obser­va­tion sur­vey­ors not­ed that sub­stan­tial cooked food, such as tripe, black pud­ding (blood sausage) and pies, was still avail­able from wan­der­ing hawk­ers. The pubs them­selves, how­ev­er, were also now sell­ing a rel­a­tive­ly new inno­va­tion: pack­ets of pota­to crisps.

The ori­gins of pota­to crisps (US: chips) seem some­what obscure but the ear­li­est writ­ten recipes for paper thin slices of pota­to fried in oil are from the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry. The process of their man­u­fac­ture was indus­tri­alised around the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry and they were first put into pack­ets, rather than bulk con­tain­ers, in the US in the 1920s.

They real­ly seem to have tak­en off as a pub snack, how­ev­er, when Frank Smith of Crick­le­wood, North Lon­don, start­ed sell­ing his pack­et­ed crisps with, for the first time, a sachet of salt includ­ed, mak­ing them the per­fect, con­ve­nient, thirst-induc­ing pub snack. They had a long shelf-life, were eas­i­ly stored, did­n’t smell and were, in many oth­er ways, far prefer­able to third-par­ty sheep­’s trot­ters from a pub­li­can’s point of view.

Before long, crisps became dom­i­nant.

Pub­lic Hous­es, Pri­vate Lives, an oral his­to­ry of pubs in York in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, fea­tures the rec­ol­lec­tions of drinkers and pub­li­cans, and almost all of them remem­ber crisps as being the only food avail­able from the 1930s to the 1950s: ‘Crisps, pota­to crisps, that’s all.’

A 1949 arti­cle from the Econ­o­mist sum­marised pub food as ‘a pack­et of crisps or a flac­cid sar­dine on leath­ery toast’ and, in the same year, Smith’s Pota­to Crisps annu­al com­pa­ny state­ment proud­ly boast­ed of sup­ply­ing near­ly every pub­lic house in the coun­try.

They were soon joined by oth­er pack­et­ed snacks.

KP Nuts beer mat, 1970s.Roast­ed peanuts were for­mer­ly the pre­serve of street hawk­ers in the US (Moth­er Fresh Roast­ed most notably) but became pop­u­lar in pack­aged form a lit­tle lat­er than pota­to crisps, in the 1950s. The most famous UK brand is KP, who start­ed pro­duc­ing pack­aged peanuts in 1952, while in the US, Beer Nuts, with added sug­ar, were trade­marked in 1953.

We don’t know exact­ly how or when pork scratch­ings (aka pork rinds, aka crack­ling) made the leap from butcher’s shop to pub but the great surge seems to have been post-WWII, and part of the gen­er­al trend toward any­thing (a) salty and (b) that could be put into a cel­lo­phane pack­et. Cer­tain­ly by the 1970s, pork scratch­ings had become a pub cliché.

McGhees Oven Fresh Hot Pies at the Laurieston Bar, 2009, by John Gorevan.
McGhees Oven Fresh Hot Pies at the Lau­rieston Bar, 2009, by John Gore­van, used with per­mis­sion.

Mean­while, as pubs and bars felt the need to com­pete with fast food chains and super­mar­kets, more sub­stan­tial bar food began to re-appear. We recall, from our own child­hood trips to pubs and social clubs, eat­ing fluffy white ham or cheese rolls, wrapped in cling-film and stored under glass cloches on the back bar. The 70s and 80s also saw a boom in pies, pasties and sausage rolls – either kept warm in a hot box, or microwaved, and just about pos­si­ble to eat with­out cut­lery, although at the risk of seri­ous burns. (And food poi­son­ing.)

The plough­man’s lunch, for­malised in the 1950s and ubiq­ui­tous by the 1980s, could also just about be said to qual­i­fy as a bar snack.

To some extent, things seem to have come full cir­cle today, with the rise of street food and ‘arti­sanal’ takes on work­ing class clas­sics mean­ing that all sorts of snack foods can be found on offer, from chick­en wings to (expen­sive) scotch eggs. Pack­et­ed snacks – nuts, scratch­ings, crisps, Mon­ster Munch, wasabi peas, pret­zel pieces, and so on – are still, how­ev­er, the eas­i­est, cheap­est, most instant­ly grat­i­fy­ing, and most com­mon­ly found bar snacks.

DISCLAIMER: This is based only on a quick whizz through our library, Archive.org, Google Books, news­pa­per archives online, and, of course, Wikipedia. We don’t claim to know much about the his­to­ry of food and will cor­rect and update this piece as and when we learn more.

Main image adapt­ed from a pho­to by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.

32 thoughts on “What’s the History of Bar Snacks?”

  1. In before loads of peo­ple moan­ing about how annoyed they are about expen­sive posh Scotch eggs, despite the fact that they nev­er actu­al­ly ate cheap, basic scotch eggs either because they were almost uni­ver­sal­ly hor­ri­ble.

    1. Don’t agree. Scotch eggs are hor­ri­ble – as are pork scratch­ings – but they’re ide­al when you’re feel­ing just very slight­ly hun­gry, as often hap­pens after the sec­ond pint. (As are pork scratch­ings.) Rein­vent­ed gourmet Scotch eggs at dou­ble the mon­ey are an abom­i­na­tion. (As are… but you’re ahead of me.)

      Inci­den­tal­ly, has any­one out­side Man­ches­ter heard of the ‘Man­ches­ter egg’? It’s a rein­vent­ed gourmet Scotch egg, only with black pud­ding in there some­where. They were invent­ed from scratch in about 2011, which means by now they’ve been seized on by about three gen­er­a­tions of incom­ers and we’re stuck with ’em.

  2. Seafood sales­men were around until at least the late 1980s, cer­tain­ly in East Lon­don – I lived then near the North Star in Ley­ton­stone and there was one with a bas­ket of things to sell who used to come in at around 10pm and I think had a reg­u­lar round of local pubs, cer­tain­ly at the week­ends. There were also pubs with seafood stands out­side – the only one I can imme­di­ate­ly remem­ber was at the Chest­nuts (lat­er Waltham Oak) in E17, which may have last­ed beyond 2000. The Great West­ern in Wolver­hamp­ton still does tra­di­tion­al rolls – oth­ers in the Mid­lands may well do.

    If going fur­ther afield, boiled eggs are/were found on French bars, usu­al­ly with a large salt cel­lar next to them. In Spain you tra­di­tion­al­ly got a small por­tion of tapas with each beer, and I seem to recall that if you had enough beers you could have had the equiv­a­lent of a full meal by the end of the evening, for free (it was no doubt priced in some­where). This seems less com­mon now.


      1. I’m sure Boak will pop up lat­er with here rec­ol­lec­tions of eat­ing seafood in the pub as a child but liv­ing in Waltham­stow 2003–2010, I saw a cou­ple of places with vans out­side, but nev­er any­one *inside* the pub hawk­ing. I’ve also seen a rov­ing kebab van in a pub car park – why does­n’t that hap­pen more often?

        1. I cer­tain­ly remem­ber seafood vans out­side pubs in the eight­ies – my grandad used to take me to one round the cor­ner to get prawns. How­ev­er I was too young to go into the pub itself so I don’t know if the ven­dors came in to hawk food or just sat out­side patient­ly.

          1. They def­i­nite­ly came inside the pub and would usu­al­ly have their good­ies in a wick­er bas­ket. Hav­ing done a cir­cuit of the bars they would be off to the next pub. This might have died out as more pubs start­ed doing their own food.

            The pubs which had seafood stalls in the car park usu­al­ly had ‘prop­er’ stalls which could be about the size of a car­a­van. I assume that these sold to peo­ple beyond the pub-goers, although the lat­ter would pop out for a snack.

            Anoth­er neglect­ed piece of pub his­to­ry which gets me think­ing!


    1. I remem­ber the man sell­ing seafood in the 70s and 80s who was greet­ed every Fri­day with shouts of “Have you got crabs?” He no doubt heard this side-split­ting wit­ti­cism in every pub he vis­it­ed.

  3. I’ve cer­tain­ly seen a seafood sales­man in the cur­rent cen­tu­ry, although not in the past few years.

    I can remem­ber around 1979 think­ing that the fact they sold dry roast­ed peanuts being a good rea­son for vis­it­ing a par­tic­u­lar pub.

    The assort­ed filled rolls in a glass cab­i­net were cer­tain­ly com­mon­place in the late 70s/early80s. Rare now, but I have spot­ted some this year.

    It might be worth you delv­ing fur­ther into the “back in the day, the only food you could get in pubs was crisps” claim. My legal drink­ing mem­o­ries go back to 1977, but even then meals in pubs were wide­ly avail­able, and in con­sid­er­able vari­ety. Yes, there were far more wet-only pubs, but at the same time pubs were more inclined to exper­i­ment rather than adopt­ing the samey menus you so often see today.

    Did some huge rev­o­lu­tion hap­pen between 1965 and 1975, or was it always the case that pubs cater­ing for office work­ers, trav­ellers and tourists offered at least some straight­for­ward food?

    1. The claims in the York pub book are a bit more spe­cif­ic – in less posh pubs that did­n’t serve meals, from 1930s to the 1950s, the only *snacks* you could get were crisps. The peas and pies and black pud­dings had all gone.

      A lot of the dif­fi­cul­ty in pin­ning down whether pubs did or did­n’t typ­i­cal­ly have food boils down to the dis­tinc­tion between what would now be called ‘wet led’ but were, his­tor­i­cal­ly, ale­hous­es, vs. tav­erns and inns, where food was a key part of the offer. Cor­ner booz­ers in cities weren’t expect­ed to pro­vide food, although some appar­ent­ly did on feast days, or if there was a par­tic­u­lar busi­ness near­by whose staff came in for lunch en masse.

      Those big new pubs some­times had can­teen-style din­ing rooms or on-site sand­wich bars, too, but there does­n’t seem to have been much crossover between that and the tap-room where the seri­ous drink­ing went on.

      Refer­ring again to the York pubs book (it’s a great read) a cou­ple of the peo­ple inter­viewed recall that the pubs they lived/worked/drank in start­ed serv­ing food in the 1960s – scampi, cur­ry and oth­er things we would now recog­nise as ‘pub grub’. The sug­ges­tion is that they start­ed cater­ing for tourist coach par­ties and then stuck with it.

      There was also a gen­er­al dri­ve with­in the indus­try to make pubs more appeal­ing (and respectable…) and serv­ing food was seen as part of that.

      1. I won­der whether back in the 50s and 60s there was a kind of unac­knowl­edged dis­tinc­tion between “pubs” and “inns and hotels”. Sure­ly many of the big out-of-town road­hous­es of that era served meals, and like­wise city-cen­tre pubs with an office-work­er clien­tele.

        I cer­tain­ly have vague child­hood mem­o­ries of my par­ents tak­ing me into places they described as “hotels” but which I would now just con­sid­er as pubs.

        1. I think you’re right about a dis­tinc­tion, if not unac­knowl­edged than at least not as clear­ly stat­ed as it once was. Here’s Mau­rice Gorham on cen­tral Lon­don pubs in The Local 1939:

          At mid­day prac­ti­cal­ly every pub can sup­ply some­thing eat­able at the bar, and many have sep­a­rate din­ing rooms or restau­rants as well… At the oth­er end of the scale are the small hous­es where you can get bread and cheese and per­haps a ham sand­wich and hard-boiled egg.”

          When he revis­it­ed that sec­tion in Back to the Local after the war, he seemed to sug­gest that it was no longer quite the same, thanks in large part to rationing: “sand­wich­es… are a gam­ble now… all Lon­don seems to be eat­ing pink paste or old shoe leather”.

          So, per­haps the 1940s and 50s were real­ly a blip?

          1. Remem­ber rationing sur­vived through to the 50s, which may have made offer­ing snack food a poor propo­si­tion

  4. You still get the odd place that has trays of bits of pork pie, cold sausage, black pud­ding etc on the bar to nib­ble at for free while you’re order­ing your pint – a sort of mid­lands tapas.

    The cling­film wrapped baps behind the counter can be a def­i­nite bonus too, where that tra­di­tion sur­vives – some­times you just want some food at the same time as your pint, not a table num­ber, a bal­sam­ic-dressed side sal­ad and a forty minute wait.

    1. Yes, pubs miss out on pro­vid­ing “food for drinkers” rather than food to specif­i­cal­ly go there for. It’s a strug­gle to find a straight­for­ward sand­wich in a pub nowa­days rather than some cia­bat­ta thing with sal­ad and fries.

  5. It worth repeat­ing a Hen­ning Wehn joke.

    Why do you pay for Eng­lish pub food upfront, instead of after the meal?

    Wait till you taste it.

  6. …excel­lent jaunt through the sub­ject, as always – this gets my vote for ‘more, please…!’. White­lock­’s in Leeds has a now-dor­mant hot counter in situ, still. IN fact, (and I may have told this sto­ry before so please, bear with), one of my clear­est pub mem­o­ries is sit­ting in there with my grand­moth­er cir­ca 1989/90 and mar­vel­ling at a hot Scotch egg being served. Must have been made on site, but I had sim­ply nev­er come across one before. Now you can’t move for the tasty bug­gers.

  7. A great read. I can’t help but think that pubs are the only rea­son that The Real McCoys are still made?

      1. And don’t for­get the Bacon Fries! The tri­umvi­rate of for­mer-Smiths pro­duced corn-based snack prod­ucts. Very rare to get all three in one pub though, one of the many rea­sons I love the Shake­speare’s Head by Sad­dlers Wells.

  8. Pick­led eggs in a pack­et of crisps is fair­ly pop­u­lar here in Suf­folk but friends (and bar staff) in oth­er parts of the coun­try seem to think it’s very strange.

  9. Pork scratch­ings stopped being prop­er pork scratch­ings when they no longer came with the orig­i­nal pig hair attached.
    The Wind­jam­mer in Dart­mouth make their own pork scratch­ings – salt­ed to remove the mois­ture then baked till they’re rock hard.
    At first it’s like bit­ing on a peb­ble but care­ful suck­ing and chew­ing ( ooh matron) even­tu­al­ly ren­ders them into some­thing digestible.
    But I dread to think how many fill­ings have been lost over the years.

  10. I was amazed when 18 months ago a seafood man was in town. I think that maybe the late night take­away has killed off hawk­ing. I do know that many cling filmed sarnies are often on a sale or return basis with a local sand­wich shop. This area is blessed with a local Pak­istani sweet cen­tre that pro­duces fan­tas­tic samosas, pako­ra and kebab, these are often found in the wet led booz­ers, same sale or return basis.

  11. In the Nine­teenth cen­tu­ry at least (and pos­si­bly before, but not long after), oys­ters were a com­mon bar snack in Bo’­ness and pre­sum­ably oth­er ports along the Forth. They were so com­mon in fact that they would be served free so that the salti­ness would encour­age fur­ther beer pur­chase. How­ev­er, by 1920 the fish­eries had gone due to the effects of pol­lu­tion.

    Although the Forth is a lot clean­er now, it would prob­a­bly still be inad­vis­able to eat any shell­fish for­aged (South Queens­fer­ry even has signs advis­ing this.)

    PS If I had a pub, pako­ras and samosas would be the snack of choice, but I can’t think of any­where that does that. Does any­where in Britain have a his­to­ry of Bavar­i­an-style pick­led gherkins or sim­i­lar?

  12. Fas­ci­nat­ing post and dis­cus­sion. Can any­one explain (to an Amer­i­can) the lit­er­al mean­ing of “wet led?” Is that an abbre­vi­a­tion? Cheers.

    As for the US, it was a real stim­u­lus to the restau­rant indus­try when Pro­hi­bi­tion put an end to the “free lunch” in Amer­i­can saloons. Baked beans were a sta­ple in them, free with the pur­chase of a 5‑cent beer.

    1. Jan – the dis­tinc­tion is between ‘wet led’ pubs where drink is the foun­da­tion of the busi­ness, and ‘food led’, which are more like infor­mal restau­rants with booze on the side. Wet led pubs might not even have a kitchen and some even allow you to bring food from near­by take­aways.

      1. Oh, sor­ry! It is odd – about the only sit­u­a­tion where it’s used like that, as far as I can think. I guess you could say ‘booze cen­tric’ as an alter­na­tive.

  13. I remem­ber a chap com­ing into the pub usu­al­ly at the week­end sell­ing whelks, and oth­er seafood from a bas­ket, this was in the 1970’s and I seem to remem­ber the com­pa­ny name being Ker­shaws.

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