Shopping for Food in the 19th Century, or, You’ve Got it Real Easy Nowadays, You Know

Claire Howland* opened her left eye, squinting at the mottled ceiling of her bedroom, the peeling paint accentuated by the feeble morning sunshine. Groaning, she remembered something about the upcoming day, market day. She hoped that the new Irish maid, Kate, had prepared the boarders’ breakfast, oatmeal porridge thinned with milk from the stringy cow they all called Jenny and sweetened with a few shavings off the rapidly diminishing sugar cone. Real coffee, too, now that the war was over and that traitor Mary Surratt was dead, hung for her part in the death of President Lincoln. And no longer in the business of boarding strangers. **

A discreet knock on the door forced Claire out of her cozy cocoon of blankets. “Yes, Kate, I am awake. I need to go to the market today. Can you make sure to change the bedding in room 5, since Mr. Evans is leaving us today? Scrub out the dresser drawers, too. I know that man kept tobacco and food there.”

Claire barely heard the quiet “Yes, Ma’am” that came through the solid walnut door. But with everything under control in the house, she pulled on her clothes, laid out the night before, the pale gray dress with the dozens of buttons down the front fitting a bit looser than usual, because spring meant the end of the heavy undergarments so necessary during a Washington DC winter. Even so, she could still see her breath as she hurried down the steep stairs to the kitchen. All she had time for was a quick cup of milky coffee. It didn’t pay to get to the market late, or else all the best items would be gone.

She ran down the hall and out into the street, for the streetcar’s bell clanged loudly, and she didn’t want to miss it.

At Center Market, Claire stepped over torn leaves and water running over the cobblestones. She haggled with the vendors for a large hunk of beef, cone sugar, vegetables with dirt still clinging to leaves and roots, plus several bunches of fresh watercress, a treat of early spring. Her last stop in the market netted two large chickens, their throats slit, bodies still warm, feathers sticky with blood. Lugging her purchases, she clambered onto the streetcar, the smell of manure lingering in the air as the horse pulled away.

At home, Claire and Kate unpacked the markets bags and set to work.

It took them an hour to cut up the meat into chunks and slices, wrap the sugar cone, scrub the vegetables, and soak the watercress. Kate primed the pump in the back garden and brought in buckets of water, plucking the chickens while the water boiled to scald the chickens and rid them of pin feathers. The bells of a nearby church rang, signaling the time: 10:30 a.m. The boarders would be back at 12 noon for lunch. Kate stoked the fire in the iron stove and the two women prepared lunch: chicken, gravy, potatoes, cabbage, rolls, and bread pudding. Claire set the table for her eight boarders, satisfied that her income remained steady for this month at least.

The bells rang again. Noon. The clump-clump of booted feet hitting the front steps signaled the arrival of the first boarders. “Chicken,” they exclaimed, their eyes lighting up, so rare a bird was that on a boarders’ table. If you asked them, they would say that Mrs. Howland sure did feed them well, in contrast to so many other landladies, those all concerned with economy.

Claire stood in the doorway, watching the six men and two women reaching for the steaming bowls of food. Sweat rolled down her back, and she pushed away a wisp of hair falling over her left eye.

Just another morning in the boarding house. Time to think of dinner.

*This person is fictitious, serving as a composite for female boarding house owners in nineteenth-century America. The photograph is of an anonymous woman whose portrait I ran across; she inspired this story, although I know nothing about her. I can personally attest to the challenges of shopping for food in the nineteenth-century manner, for when I lived in several developing countries, I shopped at open-air markets, often the only choice, and it took hours of work to buy the food, get it back to my kitchen, cut up meat, clean and soak vegetables and fruit, etc. It was not a joyous, fun-filled task to do this, believe me. In accounts of food in history, the assumption so often is that people provisioned themselves from their own land, but that’s simply not true. From early, people bought ready-made foods, too, if they could.

**Mary Surratt ran a boarding house, where Southern sympathizers stayed, including John Wilkes Booth. President Lincoln died in a boarding house, ironically, Petersen’s, across the street from Ford’s Theater.

For more on boardinghouses, see:

David Faflik, Boarding Out: Inhabiting the American Urban Literary Imagination, 1840-1860 (Northwestern University Press, 2012)

Wendy Gamber, The Boardinghouse in  Nineteenth-Century America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)

Elizabeth Klimasmith, At Home in the City: Urban Domesticity in American Literature and Culture, 1850-1930 (UPNE, 2005)

Boarding Houses, Fodder for Popular Culture (Gherkins & Tomatoes article, 2009)

Grocery bags (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
Grocery bags (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

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