The weekly Williamsburg market was a bustling forum that spread across a large paved area, defining the limits of the “market place” on the south side of the Duke of Gloucester Street. Shoppers heard the pattering cries of vendors hawking their wares to shoppers, and encountered a bevy of smells from fresh comestibles arranged in open stands, baskets, or hung from hooks, to the more powerful aromas of fish and oysters packed in barrels carefully placed in a far corner. Though it may have appeared to the uninitiated as a frenzied clamor of people haggling over the best cuts of meat or the lowest price for a dozen eggs, market day was a carefully orchestrated event that was governed by a set of rules and regulations established by the mayor and aldermen of the city, known as the Common Hall, and enforced by the clerk of the market.
Rather than a freewheeling environment, the Williamsburg market, like all English and American markets of the period, was intended to provide householders with equitable access at reasonable prices to the “necessities of life,” as they were called. The market place was instilled by the ethos of a “moral economy” rather than an unabated capitalist one. Food supplies left unrestricted to the laws of supply and demand were seen as deleterious to the community. This attitude derived from deep-seated Christian tenets tinged with folk memories of famines that had resulted from crop failures during the late Elizabethan period.
This ethical perspective went hand in hand with the belief that a hungry population was a dangerous one. An echo of that fear appeared during the Revolution when inflation threatened to disrupt the orderly victualing of Williamsburg’s population. Hence magistrates set the maximum price for basic items such as meat, poultry, cheese, eggs, butter, and other goods. Strict market hours, clearly defined market boundaries, and laws against forestalling, regrating, and engrossing were intended to protect consumers from unscrupulous practices of hording, collusion, and price gouging. Sign boards in the market house posted regulations, prices, and market hours. Ideally, the householders of Williamsburg could procure their daily provisions at a single convenient location and choose among several competing vendors. After the clerk rang the bell to signal the end of the market for householders, regulations were relaxed and hucksters and retailers—including tavern keepers such as Henry Wetherburn who required larger quantities of produce for his customers—were allowed to make purchases for resale at higher prices.
By consolidating market activities, the municipality could better enforce health codes, clean and police the market, and collect revenues. Everything from the maximum price for a pound of beef to the official weight of a bushel of wheat was determined by the court and enforced by the clerk. When disputes between buyers and sellers arose, he examined the disputed goods using the corporate weights and measures. Those found putting lard at the bottom of a firkin of butter or using private scales that were rigged had their goods seized and sold for the public good and their faulty devices destroyed. The clerk also had the power to seize and destroy “blow meat, leprous swine,” and other goods that might endanger the health of the community. He registered sales and collected a percentage of the transactions so that money entered into public coffers as a sales tax. Some this money went back to the market to pay for its upkeep and make improvements in its services. (Click on images for captions and to enlarge).[envira-gallery id=”15975″]
Contributed by Carl Lounsbury, Architectural Historian.