Prior to the Reform Act of 1832, only a fraction of the population of England could vote for a Parliamentary representative, and the qualifications for enfranchisement varied greatly among boroughs. In some places, only men who owned land (“freeholders”) were considered to have a stake in electoral outcomes; in others, male heads of household could vote if they possessed a hearth large enough to accommodate a cauldron. If you had your own place to boil your own pot, you might be considered a legally settled and economically independent householder, not dependent on other family members or charity to supply your board. This division might include young men early in their careers who took lodgings, as long as their lodgings had a separate fireplace; it would not include most women, or young men who lived with their parents, or men who could not afford the kind of lodgings that came with an independent hearth. However, the latter group could sometimes work their way into enfranchisement by setting up a makeshift fireplace in a public square, demonstrating their potboiling (or potwalling or potwalloping) for all to see.
The Reform Act instituted voter registration and replaced the vague terms of potwallopery with voting rights for householders and leaseholders above a certain rent, which did increase the number of enfranchised residents overall but kept the vote inaccessible to most women and many members of the working classes, including some who might have been able to squeak into the election by way of potwalling. “Potwaller” voters eventually dwindled out a few decades after Reform, and the era of potwaller boroughs was looked upon unkindly for a number of reasons. Still, it is interesting to think that, in an era when the vote was considered a reward for civic investment rather than a civil right, a man could be enfranchised by his ability to cook.
According to the OED, the word “potboiler” owes its etymology to the same root. A potboiler, if you’re not familiar, refers to a work of art or literature that is presumed to have been created primarily to put food on the table (or soup in the pot, if you will). It’s a derogatory term, implying that the work is hastily or thoughtlessly executed, or that its maker obeys the whims of the market rather than the forces of creativity. (See also “sellout.”) This link was brought to my attention in an article by Kate Thomas, who explores Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s anxiety about the wild popularity and mass consumption of his Sherlock Holmes stories in an era when sensation novels and domestic manuals were among the most widely circulated publications. In “Alimentary: Arthur Conan Doyle and Isabella Beeton,” Thomas writes:
“The designation ‘potboiler,’ therefore, purports to describe quality of art, but it is as much a designation of the artist as the art. As a category, it imperils or degrades the artist’s own categorization by typing that artist as someone whose base material needs debase their artistry and integrity. . . . To be the author of mass-produced, mass-consumed literature is to be consumed and debased oneself.”
This is reminiscent of the metaphors of mass consumerism, such as “eye candy” or “pap,” which are derogatory ways of describing the consumption of pop culture. Metaphors that position mass culture as digestible and bland, like baby food, tend to imply that mass culture consumers are being eaten up or taken in by the supposedly unstimulating fodder they swallow; in the instance of “potboilers,” the implication is that the creator of mass marketable materials is being eaten up–consumed, perhaps ironically, by his or her need to get soup in the pot. So, although potwallers and potboilers figuratively or literally cook to improve their lot, the words are perversely used to connote deficiency and disruption of class boundaries.