The Origin of Biscuits

It is interesting first to trace first where the word “biscuit” came from and how biscuit-making developed into an industry.

The word can be traced back to the Romans, who baked a type of dough into something which must have looked similar to our present army biscuit.  This was supplied to the troops in the field.  The term then used was “panis biscoctus” – “panis” meaning bread, “bis” meaning two or twice and “coctus” meaning cooked.  This travelled through to the French, who used the word “biscuit”, in this case “bis” meaning two and “cuit” must have been a reference to cooking.  By cooking the product twice, the Romans produced a food that was hard and dry and which could keep for a long period of time without deteriorating.


In the early days most bakers, when they had finished their bread baking, would produce some cakes and biscuits to take advantage of the residual heat left in the ovens.   The biscuits were of course hand-made as there was no biscuit machinery at that stage.   There were broadly two types of biscuits.  The first would be made from a fairly firm dough pinned out and then cut into shapes, perhaps squares or oblongs, or using the rim of a cup or glass to make circles.  Variations would be according to the ingredients in the dough.   The other kind were made from a softer type of dough with more fat in it.   Small lumps of dough about the size of a walnut (called ‘nuts’) would be placed on a baking pan and in the heat of the oven this would flow out into a flattened biscuit about the size of a Marie biscuit.   In later days these were referred to as ‘drop’ biscuits.   Changes could be made to these biscuits by, for example, putting a cherry on the top or adding some flavouring such as ginger into the dough.

So biscuit production was very localised and most sales to customers were probably made direct from the bakers shop, as there could not have been very many traders and shopkeepers at that time.

Britain was a maritime nation and in approximately 1750 there was a growing demand for “ship biscuits(not “ships biscuits), (also known as "hard tack").

Photograph on the left : The Ship Biscuit was the first biscuit made in any volume in England and also the first biscuit to be made by machinery.

Originally these ship biscuits were square and later round, about 5 inches in diameter, about half an inch thick.  They were made for the supply to ships, particularly to British ships – Britain being a maritime nation.  It must be realized that these ships went to sea for long periods of time - from three months to possibly a year - and it was necessary to take food with them that would not deteriorate. In fact, the voyage of the ship that brought the first Baumann to South African in 1851 (my grandfather’s uncle) lasted three months.  It was the dryness of the biscuit that gave it its keeping quality.  Moisture is an enemy of food and very quickly induces mould growth.  This can be seen if a loaf of bread is kept for a few days.  Bread contains a very high content of water.  Cakes also go mouldy quickly.

I have read that if the biscuits, after some period of time, were not keeping too well the cooks could bake them again to dry out some of the moisture to extend their life.  At that time (1750) tins and the use of tin plate had not been invented.  The “ship biscuits” were bundled into coarse woven sacks or into canvas sacks in quantities of 112 lbs (pounds) each – called a hundred-weight (abbreviated as “cwt”).  In those early days ships took on provisions and other goods calculated in tons, which was equivalent to 2 240 lbs.  One-twentieth of a ton was 112 lbs and this is no-doubt why the sacks were filled to that particular weight.

Demand increased.  Thomas Grant, in 1829, invented a form of machinery in England for making ship biscuits, which proved so effective that he was awarded a grant by parliament.  These biscuits, interestingly, were hexagonal in shape.  It was not long afterwards that Huntley and Palmer’s invented a versatile biscuit machine which could make several varieties of biscuits.  This accomplishment would probably mark the beginning of the professional biscuit industry.

At about this time there were four biscuit manufacturers in England who became involved in the manufacture of machine-made biscuits:  Peek-Frean (the inventor of “Marie Biscuits”);  Huntley and Palmer (the people who constructed the first biscuit machinery);  Carr’s of Carlisle (who developed the water biscuit along the same principle as the “ship biscuit”, that is it consisted mainly of flour and water and was dry);  and Jacobs, who became famous for their “Cream Crackers” and really did not have much competition in this particular biscuit.

As the biscuit manufacturing industry grew, Huntley and Palmer in Britain turned their minds to exporting and created a fairly good on-going trade with South Africa.  By this time tin plate had been invented so these biscuits were packed into tins.  Three sizes of tins were used:  a no. 7 tin, which held 7 lbs of biscuits or one-sixteenth of a hundred-weight;  a no. 14 holding 14 lbs;  and a no. 28 holding 28 lbs, as can been seen in the picture.  The tins were soldered along the seams to make them air-tight and the lid was also soldered down.

Storekeepers found these biscuit tins very useful for the storage of other products, particularly the No. 14 and No. 28 tins, which had hinged lids.  One would find tins containing rice, flour, mealie-meal and so on.


Photographs on the left : These three tin sizes were used by British manufacturers to export to South Africa.  The tins shown on the left were found in various museums.


When biscuit manufacture became established in South Africa, these same tin sizes were used.  The concept of wrapping biscuits into packets had not yet been adopted.  The tins were filled with loose biscuits.  A storekeeper would have several tins in his shop and the method was for the customer to ask for 1 or 2 lbs of biscuits, as she desired.  The storekeeper then went to the appropriate tin, weighed out the quantity of biscuits and handed these over, making sure he closed the tin properly again to prevent air and moisture getting at the biscuits.