Jam, which is now justly considered the birthright of every Englishman, was in earlier days a luxury peculiar to the rich. In Galt’s “Annals of the Parish,” in which the Rev. Micah Balwhidder sets down the occurrences of his district from 1760 onwards, the following entry occurs:—“I should not in my notations forget to mark a new luxury that got in among the commonalty at this time. The fashion to make jam or jelly, which hitherto had been only known in the kitchens and confectionaries of the gentry, came to be introduced into the clachan (village).” The writer attributes this innovation to the opening of new roads, with the consequent increase of traffic thereon, and to the fact that many of the youths of the village entered the merchant service, and sailed to Jamaica and the West Indies, whence great quantities of sugar were brought home. And, as at the same time many of the villagers had added to the kail-stocks and cabbages in their gardens “groset and berry bushes,” the manufacture of jam followed as an inevitable consequence. “All this, however,” continues Mr. Balwhidder, “was not without a plausible pretext: for it was found that jelly was an excellent medicine for a sore throat, and jam a remedy as good as London candy for a cough or a cold or a shortness of breath. It occasioned a great fasherie to Mrs. Balwhidder: for in the berry-time there was no end to the borrowing of her brass pan to make jelly and jam, till Mrs. Toddy, of the Cross Keys, bought one, which in its turn came into request, and saved ours.”

The manufacture of jam has now become, in certain parts of Great Britain, the most important ceremony of the year. In some families a constant strife goes on during the summer months between the schoolboy home for the holidays and his parents, generally on the subject of strawberries. Strawberry jam is good—the former of the contending parties concedes that—but is it, he asks, good enough to justify the appropriation of the major portion of the contents of the strawberry beds. The fruit is a thing of the present, the jam of the future. The fruit is certain to be a success; the jam may be a failure. In the end a compromise is usually effected, and the belligerents consent to an honourable division of the spoil. It is in Scotland that the cult of jam most obtains. The degenerate Southron is apt to fall back on the local grocer for his preserve, an action which a Scotchwoman would scorn, as indicating an almost criminal lack of good housewifeship. Even when the household store is exhausted, as frequently happens about the months of May or June, the proposal to remedy the deficiency by purchasing a supply from a shop is rejected without hesitation.

Jam-making may be said to flourish during a period of three months, from the beginning of July to the end of September. It comes in with the strawberries and goes out with the apples and plums. Great care is exercised in the selection of a suitable day for the ceremony. The weather on the day must be as dry as possible; otherwise the boiled juice will not thicken properly, and that, as every housewife knows, spells ruin. The behaviour of the boiled juice is the most critical part of the process. If, as is too often the case, the syrup resolutely refuses to coalesce, the only remedy is to boil the mixture over again, adding more sugar; too great a parsimony in regard to which is generally the cause of failure, when failure comes. Spare the sugar, and, in the words of one good lady who had had misfortunes in that direction, “it just stan’s like dub-water.” A consummation devoutly to be prayed against.

To the lay mind jam is either strawberry, raspberry, plum, or, at the most, one of half a dozen other varieties of fruit. Only the specialist in the subject knows the vast possibilities of jam-making. Only he—or she, as it generally is—can appreciate the joys of trying strange blends and making experiments with berries hitherto unknown to science, and which may or may not turn out to be deadly poison. The jam-maker who loves her art will not rest content with preserves which the dilettante can buy for a shilling at the grocer’s. All the wild products of the woods and fields are laid under contribution. The bilberry (or blaeberry, “according to the taste and fancy of the speller”), the barberry, and, above all, the bramble,

  The bramble, the bonny forest bramble,
  That makes a jest of silken vest,
   That doth through greenwood amble,

These are grist for the jam-makers’ mill. In the Highlands and Moorland districts the cranberry, and whortleberry, and even the berries of the rowan, or mountain ash, are made into jam—the last-named being a fine example of how the maker of jam loves the art for the art sake. She knows that rowan berries cannot by any possibility or process be made to taste pleasant. But they are berries, and are consequently, as such, fit objects for jam. On the shores of the Argylleshire lochs, where there is shelter from wind and rain, the fuchsia grows in profusion, and its berries are made into a species of very palatable jelly. Bramble gathering is a very favourite employment of Scottish children, combining, as it does, the “utile” of furthering the manufacture of jam, and the “dulce” of getting their faces scratched and their hands and clothes dirty.

As an instance of the greater seriousness with which jam is regarded in the north, it may be mentioned that it is there reserved for Sunday tea—a great festival. In England the cult is less strenuous, and jam may be found on the schoolroom or nursery table on each of the seven days. Jam-making will never be really popular with the sterner sex, for, under the mystic spell of the fumes of boiling syrup, their claim to be considered the superior sex is temporarily in abeyance. They and their requirements are totally disregarded, and they can only win notice by selling their independence and performing such menial services in connection with the jam making as the carrying to and fro of huge pans of fruit and sugar. Officers in His Majesty’s Army have been seen to degrade themselves in this manner, and, as for mere civilians, they are regarded simply in the light of pack animals. On such occasions, the hand that wields the ladle rules the world.


Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse in his
Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Transcriber’s notes:
fasherie: Scots dialect for vexation or worry
 Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we have found the source; the majority of the column is adapted from “Jam and Jelly Making” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864. Wodehouse is more freely adapting the source material than he had done a year earlier, and I suspect that the “constant strife” between the demands of the jam-pot and the desire of the schoolboy eager for summer strawberries derives from Wodehouse’s own family experiences. And updating the proverb (made famous in an 1865 poem by William Ross Wallace) in the last line from “the hand that rocks the cradle” to “the hand that wields the ladle” brings this series of turnover columns to a suitably Wodehousean close.

Neil Midkiff