Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Horlick's and the Ghosts of 1914

"Horlick's Ration of Malted Milk Tablets," ca. 1914-18. © Brown University.
Today I write in a lighter vein amid our recent attention to remembrance and commemoration. The primary theme of the month will continue, rest assured. I just couldn't help but write about a cheerier aspect of First World War history to which I recently connected.

Horlick's was something of which I'd heard in various places but had never encountered in person. Most recently, while watching PBS's excellent series, Call the Midwife, I noticed that characters in the  television drama, which is set in the post-World War Two era, mentioned drinking Horlick's left and right. The show's tired, frazzled, nurses and nuns turn to the drink when agitated or exhausted. Perhaps--almost certainly?--this was deliberate product placement. However, the drink's comforting qualities  (which are still celebrated today) were so frequently touted that I grew curious. 
Here in America, I feel as though the range of popular non-alcoholic beverages is concentrated mostly in the carbonated category. We like our sodas (though I'm not a huge fan). Tea has some loyal drinkers, especially in my family, and coffee and its spawn of various nominally-related improvisations (usually blended and topped with assorted whipped cream, sprinkles, and syrups) are also beloved. Given this liquid landscape, beverages less well-known in the U.S., such as Bovril, Oxo, or Horlick's, for example, take on rather exotic and mysterious aspects.

You may wonder why I'm writing about Horlick's here at Ghosts of 1914. Well, as I discovered through various excursions online, Horlick's had an important role during the Great War. 

Now an internationally-sold product, Horlick's had its origins in Atlantic crossings. It all began in the 1860s, when British brothers William and James Horlick moved to the United States and established a factory producing a malted milk beverage in Chicago, Illinois. After moving the company to Wisconsin and patenting their beverage powder mix, the brothers stretched the company's reach back across the pond. A London office and a manufacturing plant in Slough were established by 1910. 

Horlick's became important for British soldiers on the front in World War One. As with tea-making provisions that I covered in an earlier post, Horlick's was a dried product and, formed into tablets, it could be included easily in a soldier's pack. Horlick's was known to have nutritive and calming powers. In the above poster from Brown University's collection, ambulance drivers pause to snack on the tablets directly, without even mixing them in water. The "delicious and sustaining" tablets provided important nutrients, making their consumption, as the poster's verbiage claims, "an every-day incident on the front." Though there isn't a related image, the IWM has a letter in its collection related to the procurement of Horlick's tablets for a British prisoner-of-war in Germany, in 1915.

Indian troops in the British Army became accustomed to consuming Horlick's while serving in the First World War, according to Wikipedia. This "every-day incident" led to the brand's foothold in India after armistice. By the 1920s, as historian Douglas E. Haines writes, Horlick's was advertised in India as a health product for all. The company's later promotional campaign, Haines's fascinating analysis shows, revolved around colonial-era stereotypes and depended heavily on association with masculine strength. The long and complex history of Horlick's, which persists quite powerfully and internationally today, is vaster than I can convey here. For further exploration, the company's website has some interesting resources. The LA Times also featured an informative article on the history of Horlick's some time ago.

In light of its history and near-magical claims of mood-altering properties and gastronomic enchantment, I decided recently that I simply had to try Horlick's (the UK version, which I managed to find in my local grocer's international aisle). I am sitting here drinking my very first "cuppa" as I type. 
Horlick's, in my beloved and historically-appropriate "Votes for Women" mug.
And the verdict? Well...let's just say that Horlick's is going to be an acquired taste for this American. I'm not sure that I've acquired that taste based on the first try. It is a rich beverage with an extremely "nutritious" flavor, I must say. I'm not usually a malt fan, so it's understandable that my own particular tastes don't run naturally to Horlick's original. But there are always second chances and, based on the size of the tub I purchased (the only one available), there may be third, fourth, and fifth chances too, not to mention hundredth chances as well....

Anyway, it's been fun sharing a cuppa Horlick's famous beverage with you. Thanks for joining me on this little culinary detour. Next time we will return to the theme of remembrance for November.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers celebrating the holiday, and stay tuned for our next visit to the Ghosts of 1914.

© Fiona Robinson

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