It should be noted that I absolutely love Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I love it more than any other holiday story. I think it is a shining example of the inherent good of humanity and a constant reminder of our human ability to be better than we are. I re-read it at least once a year and as an actor, I’ve been in enough productions of it to have most of it memorized by heart. However, being this intimately familiar with the source material means that sometimes, there are certain plot points that just….make me wonder.
In particular, I have maintained for many years that Scrooge giving Mrs. Cratchit the prize turkey is a DEEPLY INCONVENIENT GIFT THAT LEAVES US WITH A LOT OF UNANSWERED QUESTIONS.
With that being said, I’d like to now invite you to go on a journey with me.
Like any good historian who is trying to avoid actual work, I have done some research and some passingly adequate math and gone down a few rabbit holes, and I am very pleased to now present this research for the general edification and delight of y’all nerds.
Let us begin.
Some context: If you don’t know the general plot of Christmas Carol, let me be the first to welcome you to earth. Written by Charles Dickens in 1843, the book tells the story of Scrooge, who is mean, has a bad dream and then isn’t mean any more. As a means of showing how very Not Mean he is, he purchases the prize turkey for his employee, Bob Cratchit and his family as a whimsical Christmas surprise.
It is this particular turkey that I will now fixate on for the next 3,000 words. Buckle in, kids. We’re going on a ride.
In the text of Christmas Carol, the prize turkey is described as such:
” Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?” “What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy. ”
Then, only a couple of paragraphs later, Scrooge says:
“He sha’n’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim” (86).
Then, when the boy shows up with the turkey, Dickens tells us:
“It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ’em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax” (87).
So the bird is, physically, so large that it couldn’t stand, and since we know that most medical resources say it takes about 25-30 PSI to break smaller bones, we’re sizing up the bird considerably here.
Scrooge also says that: “Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Camden Town,” said Scrooge. “You must have a cab.”
So if we’re to take these given circumstances into consideration, we can now make a fairly intelligent guess at the size and weight of the turkey.
Some facts, for context:
In Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850, we learn several useful facts about the literal size and scope of children in London at the time of writing. For example:
In 1835, the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical journal noted that the average 11-year old male factory worker was 50.76 inches tall and the minimum was 46.50. HOWEVER, it is later noted that ‘mining children were by far the shortest occupation group, while farm boys were the tallest’, so there’s some room for variance.
Earlier, Kenyon, in 1818, found “not much of a difference in point of health or appearance, amongst those employed in cotton factories, which, compared with those who worked at other trades, but considerable difference in favor of those Children who worked at no employment at all”.
Now, we know that Scrooge woke up on Christmas Day, which was, of course, a holiday- In the UK, Christmas Day became a bank holiday in 1834-so it’s entirely possible that the boy sent to get the turkey simply had the day off of work.
Estimates show that over 50% of the workers in British factories were under the age of 14, but, since the kid is described as being “in Sunday clothes”, we can place him in a reasonably middle-class economic bracket and assume that he is not an entirely malnourished factory urchin, so we’ll take the median of the two numbers we have and arrive at the conclusion that our turkey boy would have historically stood somewhere around 48.62 inches tall.
The CDC’s growth standards (for 2018) state that “A standard height is around 39 to 48 inches for a 5-year-old boy or girl, and a normal weight is between 34 and 50 pounds.”, so we know that we’re looking at a MUCH SMALLER child than we’re accustomed to if the kid is around 11, but I’m sticking with that age since it provides the best statistics from which to work.
However, the CDC also tells us that the average height for an 11 year old (white) male today is 54.5″ with a weight of 70.5 lb, which gets us to a healthy BMI of 16.5. (Look I know BMI is kind of trash science at this point but just roll with me here). If we use that same calculation for our given height of 48” (and assume that, being a Dickensian Londoner he’s probably at least a little less well-fed than a modern middle-class American child), we’ll adjust to place him in the slightly underweight category, which gets us to a range of 43.5-45.75 pounds.
(Which, also, then, allows us to estimate the age and size of Tiny Tim, if the turkey is, in fact, as large as this unnamed boy but TWICE the size of Tiny Tim, we come up with a Tiny Tim who is approximately 2 feet tall and 20 pounds, which is, I think, appropriately tiny). Moving on.
Now, let’s say Scrooge was overcome by the spirit of Christmas and exaggerated slightly in his newfound excitement, and the kid is bad at sight-estimating turkey weight, so we’ll round it down again to a nice even 40 pounds.
Alton “yes, daddy” Brown says that a turkey cooks at about 15-20 minutes per pound, so conservatively, we’re looking at 40 pounds times 15 minutes for a total of 600 minutes, or 10 hours even.
However, that’s also based on modern cooking times, and we’re this far in, so let’s look at what a couple of extant cookbooks from the time period say. Oh, you thought we were gonna half-ass this?
Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton was first published in 1845, so a little after Christmas Carol but we can surmise that cooking technology stayed about the same. Acton says that “For heavy and substantial joints, a quarter of an hour is generally allowed for every pound of meat, and with a sound fire and frequent basting, will be found sufficient when the process is conducted in the usual manner, but for the SLOW process, as we shall designate it, almost double the time will be required. (171-172)
To be fair, she also says on page 267 that a turkey should take about 1 &1/2 and 2 1&2 hours, which is commensurate with the usual sizes of turkeys she mentions, which are between 7-10 pounds. (She also gives a recipe for BOILING a turkey and this upsets me).
Similarly, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, arguably the most popular cookbook of the period, (fun side note, you can still buy it on Amazon!) gives us cooking times of a “small turkey, 1-1/2 hour; moderate-sized one, about 10 lbs., 2 hours; large turkey, 2-1/2 hours, or longer.
She also tells us that the average cost of a 10 pound turkey is, “from 10s. to 12s., but expensive at Christmas, on account of the great demand”.
(I am absolutely terrible with British money, but my quick sidebar research led me to the conclusion that there are 20 shillings per pound, and a pound in 1843 is worth approximately $107.00 today, so 10 shillings is right around 1/2 a pound, which puts the cost of 10-pound turkey at about $53 in 2019 dollars and the cost of a 40-pound turkey at $180[ish] dollars. Scrooge also offers the kid half-a-crown as a tip, which works out to about $25.00 today.)
Both women mention preparing the turkeys before cooking with some variation on a chestnut stuffing, which, according to Mr. Alton Brown would add at least another 45-minutes-to-an-hour to the cook time, but we’ll ignore that for the sake of staying on track with our 10-hour estimate.
Also, maybe important to mention, just for some perspective: The heaviest turkey ever recorded was 86 pounds.
So, with all of this being said, if we’re to take Dickens at his word, Scrooge rolls up to the Cratchits with a $200, 40-something pound turkey that would take almost 10 hours to cook…and, let us not forget, for the sake of really hammering home that inconvenience, that Mrs. Cratchit has been preparing a goose that is specifically mentioned a number of times in the book (more on that later).
“But my dear Catie”, you say. “A 40-something pound turkey is ridiculous”. An excellent point. Which is why I wanted to know…what WOULD the size of a prize turkey be in 1843? To answer that question, I went to the British Newspaper Archive and looked at every specific mention of turkey, and there it was:
On Christmas Day, December 1843, Bell’s Weekly Messenger published reviews of different butchers and poulterer’s in London, and of a Mr. Donovan’s, in Oxford Street, they said:
“This shop was crammed almost to suffocation, and the samples were of a superior order. Here was a prize turkey, perhaps the largest in London, its weight 38 1/2 pounds”.
Game. Set. Match. You’re WELCOME.
So after all of that, we’ve established that it is entirely likely that Scrooge delivers a 40ish-pound turkey to the Cratchits on Christmas day and that is just a SILLY amount of turkey.
However, that wasn’t good enough for me—we know that the Cratchits get the turkey, that’s cannon, but having just suffered through cooking my very own turkey for the first time, I wanted to know if Mrs. Cratchit would have had time to cook the turkey on Christmas.
Here are my results:
To answer the question of whether or not Mrs. Cratchit would have had time to cook the turkey—now we have to be detectives of a kind- because all we have to go on is a specific series of little details that Dickens leaves us in regards to the actual timeline of Christmas Day for Scrooge.
Stave 4 closes with Scrooge learning a Valuable Lesson and then immediately waking up excited about his bedposts or whatever Victorian nonsense, but we don’t know, specifically, what TIME. What we DO know, is the following about Scrooge’s morning:
“He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious! Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”
So we know that there are church bells ringing and that it’s daylight out, and it’s late enough in the morning that the dew point has adjusted and there’s no fog.
A few facts: Christmas Day, 1843, fell on a Monday. According to the British Almanac of 1844 (because 1843 wasn’t available on Google, deal with it), sunrise would have happened around 7:03am (but also daylight savings and standard time wasn’t established until 1895, so I’m not sure how accurate that is). Today is 8:05am so I imagine it’s close.
So we’ll say that sunrise is at 7ish, but what about the bells? In ‘Church Bells of England’, by H.B. Walters (1912) he exhaustively details the history and usage of church bells across England.
“Besides the regular Sunday ringing, it is customary to recognise the great festivals of the Church, especially Christmas and Easter, by special peals, either before the services, or early in the morning, or on the eve of the festival. At Christmas ringing usually takes place on the eve, and in many places a peal is also rung early on Christmas morning, before the services begin”. (138)
More to the point, however, he sets down some specific times that they would’ve run: “The ringing of one or more bells at an early hour on Sunday morning still obtains in a large number of parishes, though the old custom has been somewhat obscured by the introduction of early celebrations. But there are great divergencies of practice. In some churches the bell is rung at 7, in others at 8 (when no celebration), in others at 7.30, 9, or 10.” (118)
So with all of that in mind- bells, sunlight, sunrise and day of the week, we can adequately surmise that Scrooge woke up somewhere between 7-8am on Christmas morning.
From here, we’re going to get a little bit hypothetical, but you’ve read this far and don’t pretend like you don’t want to know what happens.
So. Scrooge wakes up (7am), and yells excitedly about Christmas for awhile, then looks out the window and gets the kid to go buy the turkey. Scrooge tells him if he’s back in five minutes that he’ll give him twenty bucks. We’ll say that the kid nails it, gets to the poulterer’s, there isn’t a line, buys the turkey and the shop’s man carries a 40-pound bird back to Scrooge in 10ish minutes. That puts us at around maybe 8:00am.
Also important: in the book, Scrooge doesn’t hand deliver the turkey with Rizzo on his shoulder (Muppet Christmas Carol is the best version, fight me about it), he goes to his nephew Fred’s house and has the turkey delivered to the Cratchit’s by a man from the shop. He hails a cab specifically for him, as well.
Thanks to Dickens’ details on page 15, we also know that the Cratchits live in Camden Town (and that Bob Cratchit is a sledding enthusiast).
If we’re to use our Mr. Donovan from Bell’s Messenger as the correct(ish) address for the poulterer’s, he’s on Oxford street, which is about a 15-minute car trip through modern day London by car—and Scrooge **does** hire a (horse-drawn) cab from his house one street over and around the corner, so we’ll say that at roughly 10-15 miles per hour based on city traffic, Oxford Street to Camden would be about 30 minutes, which, on our Hypothetical Turkey Timeline, puts the turkey at the Cratchit’s by 9:00am.
If we allow time for cleaning, (INCLUDING PLUCKING and dressing the turkey because let us not forget you would have had to do that bit yourself), without also making a 40-pound turkey’s worth of dressing for the sake of simplicity, Mrs. Cratchit could have probably had the turkey in the fire by …what? 10:00 maybe? We’ll say she’s really quick about it.
So that’s ten hours in the fire with constant basting, which takes us to 8:00pm, which isn’t ENTIRELY unreasonable, particularly in context of the new, fashionable dining trends of the 1840s, in which dinner was pushed back to accommodate travel times of the wealthy merchants and tradesmen who built homes outside of the now-overpopulated London. (McMillan)
But even more pressingly—WHERE did she cook it?
Bread was a staple of Victorian life, and baking was a hugely profitable, if not absolutely exhausting industry. However, as the population of London grew, so did the need for cheap and available housing, and that meant a lot of sort of “project” style homes as well as converted houses meant for one family that instead provided lodging for as many as 5-7.
Let’s take just a brief minute to talk about what housing in Camden was like. (I swear this is going somewhere)
In A History of Camden Town, 1895-1914, David Hayes writes that by 1830, “Camden Town had evolved into a crowded inner-London suburb with a very mixed character […] Most of Camden Town’s early houses had been designed for middle class families. These houses, in yellow stock brick, were typically of three storeys, with a basement service area and often an attic containing the servants’ quarters. Some smaller two-storey cottages had also been erected for the less affluent.
By the end of the nineteenth century most of the housing stock was soot-stained and run-down. Multiple occupancy had become the norm: large houses originally built for the middle classes and their servants had been divided into apartments, and few premises were without boarders or lodgers”
Back on track. These shared lodgings and multiple-family homes meant that not every home had a traditional oven, which is where public bakehouses came in.
Valerie Porter, in Yesterday’s Countryside: Country Life as it Really Was, tells us that “Meat, pies, cakes, and other dishes for festivals and holy days used to be cooked in big bread ovens by families who normally cooked on the hearth, but could afford a few extra pennies for special meals”.
She goes on to say that “people would bring along their Sunday joints on the way to church; the joints, on trays complete with the housewife’s own batter puddings and potatoes for roasting, would be popped into the baker’s ovens and churchgoers would collect their sizzling hunks of meat after church to carry them home again under a cloth”.
Dickens confirms this: “But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces. And at the same time there emerged from scores of bye-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the bakers’ shops.” (51)
(This timing too, checks out—Mrs. Beeton tells us that the cook time for a large goose is “1-3/4 hour; a moderate-sized one, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hour.”– just enough time to drop the goose off at the baker’s, get to church, and back to pick up your Christmas Goose, and, as Bob arrives home from Church with Tiny Tim and they get the goose soon after, this timeline makes sense.
We know from the story that the goose is not being cooked at home– “And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker’s they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own” (52). This is confirmed later when “Master Peter, and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession (53)”
[Sidebar, Mrs. Beeton also tells us to expect to pay 5s for a goose around Christmas time, and we know that Bob Cratchit makes 15s a week at Scrooge’s place (Dickens 12), so we’re looking at about 1/3 of Bob’s salary for this Christmas goose at a modern adjusted cost of about $40].
Through context, Christmas Carol tells us that the Cratchits are part of this population of “hearth cookers” that Porter mentions in her writing: “…basking in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these young Cratchits danced about the table, and exalted Master Peter Cratchit to the skies, while he (not proud, although his collars nearly choked him) blew the fire, until the slow potatoes bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled (52).
and again, later, we get further details about the meal:
“Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce” (54) Let’s also take a moment to shout-out that Mrs. Cratchit meal-prepped her gravy to save herself some effort on Christmas.
And the fire and hearth are finally confirmed as extant when we hear about how “ apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth” (Dickens 56).
However, on page 51, Dickens says that the bakers “closed up”, and it is here that I think he is, perhaps incorrect, or at least fudging details to make things seem a little more magical- all of the world stops for Christmas in his world, but nearly every resource I found in regards to the bakehouses of London talked about how absolutely awful the working conditions were. Two examples I found very specifically assuaged my fears that the bakehouses would be closed for Christmas-
“The journeymen bakers of London are almost with• out exception overworked. From 18 to 20 hours of continuous occupation, with perhaps a nap of from an hour to two hours on a board, may be stated as the rule with the large majority of the trade. It often happens towards the end of the week that the poor fellows are employed without rest or sleep for more than 48 hours on a stretch”. (Chambers Edinburgh Journal, 1848)
“In London, as also in some of the larger provincial towns, a considerable proportion of these men are required to work both night and day. For instance, they commence their week’s labour on Sunday at 11p.m. and continue at it till about 4 p.m. the following day”. (The National Magazine, 1860)
What’s also particularly interesting to me is how the cookbooks I reference earlier are almost specifically set up to deal with this issue- most of the recipes detail dressings and trimmings and add-on dishes that can be cooked (over a fire) and done separately from your meat that is surmisably cooking elsewhere.
However, Mrs. Beeton says that you can, in fact, cook a turkey over a fire, “hearth style”-: “Fasten a sheet of buttered paper on to the breast of the bird, put it down to a bright fire, at some little distance at first (afterwards draw it nearer), and keep it well basted the whole of the time it is cooking”, so it’s possible that maybe Mrs. Cratchit just sent out the goose to give herself the day off, particularly, since as noted above, she’s also meal-prepped the gravy (and pudding).
So maybe Mrs. Cratchit decides to opt out of paying extra for the bakehouse – The real issue is that now, even if dinner isn’t going to be terribly late, we’ve still doomed poor Mrs. Cratchit to sit in front of a fireplace for 10 hours cooking a turkey– this isn’t the set-it-and-forget-it method of cooking we’re accustomed to, it’s “turn this bird on a spit and baste it constantly (if she goes for Acton) or making sure it doesn’t burn while you move it back and forth (if she goes for Mrs. Beeton) for the next ten hours so you don’t ruin a turkey that costs more than your family makes in a month” pressure.
It is also perhaps important to mention that, a late dinner would, in fact, justify Bob Cratchit coming into work 18 and a half minutes late the day later as Dickens tells us he does on page 90. (Although no one ever talks about how the entire Cratchit family gets lit AF on gin at their Christmas party, so it’s entirely possible that his ‘making merry’ was less about a mystery turkey and more about being shitcanned on that good, good Plymouth).
So, one last question then– what about the leftovers?
However, at least in terms of leftovers, both cookbooks also have a number of recipes that call for the ‘remains’ /leftover bits of roast turkeys, which makes me believe that leftover turkey is far from a modern problem. Salting/smoking meat was also fairly consistently popular at the time, and being a family of meager means, my general educated opinion is that Mrs. Cratchit would have used these methods to preserve as much as possible to avoid waste.
Our dear Mrs. Beeton, too, had some VERY specific instructions on cutting waste:
WHEN FUEL AND FOOD ARE PROCURED, the next consideration is, how the latter may be best preserved, with a view to its being suitably dressed. More waste is often occasioned by the want of judgment, or of necessary care in this particular, than by any other cause. In the absence of proper places for keeping provisions, a hanging safe, suspended in an airy situation, is the best substitute. A well-ventilated larder, dry and shady, is better for meat and poultry, which require to be kept for some time; and the utmost skill in the culinary art will not compensate for the want of proper attention to this particular. Though it is advisable that annual food should be hung up in the open air till its fibres have lost some degree of their toughness, yet, if it is kept till it loses its natural sweetness, its flavour has become deteriorated, and, as a wholesome comestible, it has lost many of its qualities conducive to health. As soon, therefore, as the slightest trace of putrescence is detected, it has reached its highest degree of tenderness, and should be dressed immediately. During the sultry summer months, it is difficult to procure meat that is not either tough or tainted. It should, therefore, be well examined when it comes in, and if flies have touched it, the part must be cut off, and the remainder well washed. In very cold weather, meat and vegetables touched by the frost, should be brought into the kitchen early in the morning, and soaked in cold water. In loins of meat, the long pipe that runs by the bone should be taken out, as it is apt to taint; as also the kernels of beef. Rumps and edgebones of beef, when bruised, should not be purchased. All these things ought to enter into the consideration of every household manager, and great care should be taken that nothing is thrown away, or suffered to be wasted in the kitchen, which might, by proper management, be turned to a good account. […]Much waste is always prevented by keeping every article in the place best suited to it. Vegetables keep best on a stone floor, if the air be excluded; meat, in a cold dry place; as also salt, sugar, sweet-meats, candles, dried meats, and hams. Rice, and all sorts of seed for puddings, should be closely covered to preserve them from insects; but even this will not prevent them from being affected by these destroyers, if they are long and carelessly kept.
Out of sheer curiosity, I also checked a couple of almanacs just to be thorough and because this is my new weird obsession, and it seems like December 1843, the weather was actually really warm, which is probably bad news for our leftovers– “In 1843, the year Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol and the public sent their first Christmas cards, the temperature reached a balmy 10.1C (50F) – though dense fog probably made it feel at least a bit more seasonal.”(source) , so just to ABSOLUTELY ruin your Christmas, every time you’ve seen it magically snow at the end of Christmas Carol that’s a dirty, dirty lie.
So that’s…about it. I remain steadfast in my belief that a 40-pound turkey is not an appropriate holiday gift, but I also recognize that it’s absolutely meant to be symbolic of generosity and of the newfound socio-economic level the Cratchits will enjoy with Bob’s generous raise promised by Scrooge. In the interim, I hope that you learned a little something about and how closely he integrated the realities of daily life into a short little story that changed the way the entire world celebrated Christmas—but also, if we’re being honest, I just really enjoyed going down this rabbit hole for the sake of being able to academically prove that a very silly plot point that’s always bugged me a little bit contains a whole lot of incredibly fascinating insight into the way people lived and ate in Dickensian London!
God bless us, everyone!
Streets of Camden Town, Camden History Society, London 2003, pp.10–12.
Church Bells of England, HB Walters – https://archive.org/stream/churchbellsofeng00waltrich/churchbellsofeng00waltrich_djvu.txt
[Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850], https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt6wp8vs
Modern Cookery by Eliza Acton
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10136/pg10136-images.html
Bell’s Weekly Messenger, December 25th, 1843
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens-
CDC Growth Chart
Alton Brown Turkey Recipe