Plumtree's Potted Meat

Plumtree's Potted Meat

In Brief

The "Plumtree's Potted Meat" that fed Joyce's appetite for multiple entendres was an actual commercial product, but he invented the inane advertising jingle that infects Bloom's consciousness as he peruses the Freeman's Journal in Lotus Eaters, as well as the bizarre placement of this ad under the obituaries that occupies his thoughts in Lestrygonians. Even Joyce's assignment of the product to an Irish manufacturer in Ithaca is contrary to fact. It is possible that he simply made a mistake on this last detail, but if he did knowingly misidentify the country of origin, then the sexual and sepultural associations of Plumtree's humble product are joined by some interesting political suggestions.

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Gifford glosses "To pot one's meat" as "crude slang for to copulate," and that meaning resonates with the other accidental sexual insinuations that assail Bloom as he stands talking to M'Coy about Molly's upcoming singing tour. ("Who's getting it up?" "Part shares and part profits.") Plumtree's ceramic pots proclaimed that they contained "home potted meats." Joyce's advertising jingle removes the word "home" from the producer and gives it to the consumer:

What is home without
Plumtree's Potted Meat?
With it an abode of bliss.

Later chapters, particularly Lestrygonians, will suggest that Bloom's home did reasonably approximate an abode of bliss in the years when he and Molly were enjoying satisfying carnal relations, and their marriage certainly did become incomplete when those relations ceased after Rudy's death, early in 1894.

As if to ensure that the jingle's taunting insinuations will not go unnoticed, life later imitates the art of advertising. Ithaca notes that, next to the "oval wicker basket bedded with fibre and containing one Jersey pear" that Boylan has had sent ahead of him to 7 Eccles Street, there is "an empty pot of Plumtree's potted meat," no doubt one of the contents of the basket. When Bloom climbs into bed beside Molly, he discovers "the imprint of a human form, male, not his," as well as "some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed." In the course of repeatedly potting his meat Boylan has unpotted some as well, enacting the novel's recurrent association of picnics with sexual enjoyment.

The discussion of Molly's concert tour comes just after the Freeman ad has impressed itself on Bloom's thoughts. Just before this, he and M'Coy have been discussing Paddy Dignam's death, and the ad reaches backward to encompass these associations as well. "Potted meat" perfectly captures the spirit of Bloom's meditations on burial in Hades, and in Lestrygonians he reflects that the ad has acquired just such a resonance by virtue of its placement. He seems to believe that the gruesome association may not have been accidental. It is the kind of stunt that an advertiser named M'Glade might try: "His ideas for ads like Plumtree's potted under the obituaries, cold meat department."

Later in Lestrygonians Bloom allows his imagination to play with the equivalence between dead bodies and food, in an associative sequence that leads logically to thoughts of cannibalism: "Potted meats. What is home without Plumtree's potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam's potted meat. Cannibals would with lemon and rice. White missionary too salty. Like pickled pork."

§ In Ithaca, as Bloom once more contemplates bad ads, Plumtree's returns to his mind as the worst of the worst. His thoughts veer from objective specificity to fantastic wordplay: "Manufactured by George Plumtree, 23 Merchants' quay, Dublin, put up in 4 oz pots, and inserted by Councillor Joseph P. Nannetti, M. P., Rotunda Ward, 19 Hardwicke street, under the obituary notices and anniversaries of deceases. The name on the label is Plumtree. A plumtree in a meatpot, registered trade mark. Beware of imitations. Peatmot. Trumplee. Moutpat. Plamtroo." Not for the first time in Ithaca, the authoritative air of objective fact here masks a fictive falsification, for Joyce has transformed an English business concern into an Irish one.

In "Plumtree’s Potted Meat: The Productive Error of the Commodity in Ulysses," published in Texas Studies in Literature and Language 59.1 (Spring 2017): 57-75, Matthew Hayward observes that George W. Plumtree, 49 years old at the time of the 1901 census, was a "Manufacturer of Preserved Provisions" in Southport, England (61). The Census of Ireland in that year, and again in 1911, showed no people named Plumtree. Surviving Plumtree's pots bear one of two addresses in Southport, either 184 Portland Street or 13 Railroad Street (apparently the business moved at some point). From these English addresses, the firm shipped its products to a small agency in Dublin, which in turn distributed them to retailers. In 1904 that office was located at 23 Merchants' Quay.

Thom's Dublin Directory misleadingly identified the Dublin wholesale operation as "Plumtree, George W. potted meat manufacturer," so Joyce's perpetual reliance on Thom's may have caused him to unwittingly list the wrong address. But Hayward argues that he must also have been using other sources, probably contemporary advertisements, because Thom's makes no mention of the 4 oz. pots or the "Home Potted Meats" name. Joyce might even have been looking at an actual pot: in an endnote, Hayward records the fact that in 1905 he asked Stanislaus "to bring a big can of tinned meat" with him when he came to Trieste (Letters 2:121). Both the pots and surviving early 20th century ads clearly list an address in Southport, England.

If Joyce did deliberately move Mr. Plumtree's business to Dublin, then the potted meat motif must be viewed in the context of the novel's many reflections on shipping beef and sheep to England and the loss of Irish home industry under British imperial rule. Englishmen bought Irish livestock tax-free. Businesses like Plumtree's created added value by manufacturing pots of ground-up unidentified meat parts and marketing them as home cooking, and shipped them back across the sea to Irish consumers, once again under favorable tariff arrangements. Specifying an address on Merchants' Quay for the business, Hayward notes, would "seem to contain the product in the domestic Irish economy, appearing to fulfill the terms of the 'Buy Irish' movement that Joyce at one time endorsed as the best hope for Irish regeneration (Joyce, Letters 2:167)" (61).

But Plumtree's was not a home industry, and if the Dublin address is a calculated fiction then the novel is protesting the colonial economic arrangements which resulted in Ireland buying back its own meat, at a markup, from England. This strategy would cohere with Joyce's invention of a catchy ad promising improvement in people's home lives if they eat the right kind of food. Extending the scholarly work of Anne McClintock and Thomas Richards, Hayward describes how British businesses used imperial patriotic fervor to sell products like Pears' soap and Bovril beef tea through ads implying that their consumption helped spread enlightened, scientific, health-conscious civilization. He connects "The commodity's promise of social improvement" to a phrase in Joyce's fictional ad, "an abode of bliss" (70).

Hayward does not, however, make one final connection that would enable a wholly new reading of Joyce's mock ad, consistent with the novel's other analogies between the misrule in Bloom's home on Eccles Street and advocacy of Home Rule for Ireland. The entire four-line text can be read as a comment on the atrophy of Irish economic enterprises under British colonial rule. What is our Irish home without industries like Plumtree's? Incomplete.

JH 2017
An actual ad, date unknown, displaying the same manufacturer's address seen on the ceramic pot. Source:
A mock-up of what the imaginary ad in the Freeman's Journal might have looked like. Source:
British Army Lancers turning from Inns Quay onto Church Street, toward Merchants' Quay, in 1916. Source:
The Taxing Master's Office on Merchants' Quay today, across from the Four Courts. Source: