meaning and origin of the phrase ‘jam and Jerusalem’

The slightly derogatory British-English phrase (all) jam and Jerusalem is used to characterise the Women’s Institutes. For example, this is what Sarah Hall wrote in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Tuesday 24th November 1998:

They have long been derided as the Jam and Jerusalem brigade: rural housewives who gather in village halls to discuss needlepoint and marmalade making.
But Women’s Institute members in North Yorkshire are shedding their genteel image—to emerge as eco-warriors.

The Women’s Institutes are organisations of women, especially in rural areas, who meet regularly and participate in crafts, cultural activities and social work. The first Women’s Institute was set up in Wales in 1915. The Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes were founded in 1917.

In the alliterative phrase (all) jam and Jerusalem:
jam refers to jam-making as a typical activity practised by the members of the Women’s Institutes;
Jerusalem refers to the fact that many Women’s Institutes open their meetings by singing Jerusalem—less in piety than as a signature. Jerusalem (1916) is the setting by the English composer Hubert Parry (1848-1918) of And did those feet in ancient time, a poem from the preface to Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1804-10), by the English artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827).

In an article about the Women’s Institute of the village of Swallowfield in the county of Berkshire, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Friday 8th January 1954, Victor Thompson mentioned both Jerusalem being sung at the opening of a meeting and jam-making—the subheading Not all jam may be an allusion to the phrase:

They sat on little cane chairs that had obviously not been made to measure, and they opened the meeting by singing Blake’s “Jerusalem.”
Miss Macfarlane had said the day before: “Don’t think we’re only jam-makers. We are an organisation of experts, for all housewives are expert at something, and we are therefore an information-exchange, and a pathway to new information—and a centre for social relaxation, too.”

In The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Wednesday 24th February 1965, Margaret Cooper wrote the following about the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Institutes—the phrase was evidently already well established:

The “jam and Jerusalem” image still hurts W.I. members: where most people talk about “social work” the W.I. thinks in terms of “helping Mrs. Brown.” But if a resolution sent to the annual meeting is passed the members’ social conscience, rather than their ability to make pickles, will be more evident.

The following is from an account of the conference of the Staffordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Wednesday 24th March 1965:

Mrs. Molly Millard, National Federation Press and Public Relations Officer, urging the need to bring the movement’s public image up to date, said that if that image was still one of “jam and Jerusalem” it was largely members’ own doing.
“I do not decry our jam and Jerusalem image—we are the best jam makers in the country, and we do most superb handicrafts—but that is only a tenth of the iceberg.
With our are [sic], science, community work, rallies, and other activities we have something for everyone: but we rarely let other people know.”

Maev Kennedy used the phrase in both an extended form and an extended acceptation in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Friday 30th November 1990:

After 44 years of its unique mixture of jam, Jerusalem and genital warts, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is to be axed.

This photograph is from Don’t Waste Your Fruit—Can It, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Friday 16th August 1940:

Women's Institute - The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) - 16 August 1940

Mrs. Hall (spotted dress) grows and picks her own fruit and has been a canning enthusiast for some years. She is President of Watlington Women’s Institute and on the committee of two others. Miss Dilworth, who is conducting operations, is an even greater expert. The others are Mrs. Page, who is Mrs. Hall’s mother, Mrs. Oliver, and Miss Page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.