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The President and the Parsnip: Thomas Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Chart (1801-1808)

Today’s post is guest authored by Julie Miller, historian of early America in the Library’s Manuscript Division

Thomas Jefferson's Vegetable Market Report (1801-1808) in the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Report (1801-1808) in the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress

During most of his two terms as president of the United States, (1801-1809) Thomas Jefferson carefully compiled a chart recording the seasonal appearances of fruits and vegetables in Washington’s market. This seems like a funny way for a president to spend his time. In fact, the chart is an expression of Jefferson’s enduring interests in science and agriculture, which he continued to pursue even during his two terms as president. It is also a record of his love of delicious things to eat, which he cultivated as a diplomat in France in the 1780s and continued to nurture after he returned to the United States. Today the chart stands as a record of what local farmers grew in Jefferson’s time, what Washingtonians ate and when, and what the third president of the United States served his guests and family in the still unfinished President’s House, or the White House, as we call it today.

The chart raises some interesting questions. First, did Jefferson really do the shopping himself?  You might think not, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries men in middle-class urban families often did shop for their families in city markets. Even men with demanding work found the time. Philip Hone (1780-1851), who was active in business and politics in New York City during the first half of the nineteenth century and served as mayor in 1825, recorded his visits to the city markets in his diary. Washington Topham, author of a history of Center Market, which was about a mile down Pennsylvania Avenue from the President’s House, writes that John Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Court when Jefferson was president, did his own shopping there, and that Jefferson was also spotted at the market, shopping for the dinners he liked to give. During Jefferson’s presidency, however, it was his French butler, Etienne Lemaire, who did most of his shopping. Lemaire’s daybook includes his records, in French, of the purchases he made every day at the Georgetown market, and Jefferson’s memorandum books, in which he recorded his daily expenses, show him paying Lemaire for his market purchases. It seems that Jefferson shopped for pleasure when he could (maybe even taking advantage of the informal hustle and bustle of the market to have a chat over the piles of lettuces with Chief Justice Marshall, with whom he had a difficult political relationship), but mostly he delegated the job to Lemaire.

Center Market, built in 1801, as it looked during the Civil War, 1861-1865. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Center Market, built in 1801, as it looked during the Civil War, 1861-1865.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The chart also provokes a question about where early nineteenth-century Washingtonians got their food. Before there were trucks and trains to transport food from country to city, with refrigeration to preserve it on the way, suppliers of perishable foods often lived very close to cities, sometimes in them. Market gardeners, many of them women, trundled their produce into urban markets on carts early every morning. Cows and pigs wandered around city streets; milk often came from the cow around the corner. (Frances Trollope, a British visitor to the United States in the late 1820s who lived mostly in Cincinnati, described the “republican cow” who, after being fed and milked “at the door of a house,” wandered away “to take her pleasure on the hills, or in the gutters, as may suit her fancy best.”) Farmers, fishermen, hunters, bakers, and butchers, carried in their goods and displayed them for sale in city markets. The Georgetown market where Etienne Lemaire did his shopping opened in 1796 when Washington was still under construction and the federal government was still in Philadelphia. The Center Market on Pennsylvania Avenue was authorized by Jefferson himself soon after he took office; it opened in December, 1801.

Even closer to the President’s House was a vegetable market in Lafayette Square run by Alethia Browning Tanner, an enslaved woman. How did a woman burdened by slavery manage to run her own business and keep profits that were substantial enough to allow her to purchase the freedom of many relatives and friends? Her situation was not that unusual for an urban slave. Slaves who lived in cities often arranged with their masters to work for themselves. Sometimes they were allowed to keep their earnings; at other times they were required to hand them over to their masters. Rural slaves, also, earned money by cultivating produce to sell at market or to their own masters. This was the practice at Jefferson’s Monticello. The household account book kept successively by his wife, Martha Jefferson (1748-1782) and their granddaughter, Ann Cary Randolph (1791-1826) documents their purchases of vegetables, chickens, and eggs from slaves at Monticello, where the Jeffersons and their slaves lived separately and, as these transactions show, closely together.

Inside Center Market, ca. 1909-1931.This Center Market was built after the Civil War and torn down in 1931. The National Archives is on the site today. National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Inside Center Market, ca. 1909-1931.This Center Market was built after the Civil War and torn down in 1931. The National Archives is on the site today.
National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Jefferson did not limit his food purchases just to what was locally available in Washington or Virginia. Soon after he returned to the United States from France he had William Short, the American chargé d’affaires in Paris send him  wine and “Maccaroni, Parmesan cheese, figs of Marseilles, Brugnoles, raisins, almonds, mustard, Vinaigre d’Estragon, other good vinegar, oil, and anchovies.” He continued to order food and wine from Europe, and he also cast around for delicacies in the United States, especially between 1807 and 1815, when embargoes and the War of 1812 made importing from Europe difficult. In 1812, for example, he thanked a correspondent from North Carolina for a gift of tarragon plants with which he hoped to make tarragon vinegar – the “vinaigre d’estragon”  he had earlier imported from France.

Jefferson’s vegetable market chart is more than just a record of the seasonal ebb and flow of produce on Washington tables, it is also an expression of his tastes and interests. The chart is one of many lists and tables in the Jefferson papers that reveal the quantitative cast of his mind and document him at work as a scientist observing and recording the natural world. Another significant example is his weather record, in which he daily recorded temperature and precipitation. He used his vegetable garden at Monticello not only to supply the house with produce, but also to conduct experiments with seeds and plants. As much as Jefferson enjoyed the delicacies he imported from Europe, he also liked the humbler vegetables that grew close to home and believed they contributed to good health. In 1819, a decade after he left Washington and the presidency, at age seventy-six, Jefferson declared that he had “lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”

The Thomas Jefferson papers, which include the vegetable market chart, have been published and they are online (see below for details.) Take some time to explore the papers, which, like the chart, and like Jefferson himself, contain plenty of food for thought.

Read More About It

Other Primary Sources:

A cow relaxes at Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street, Washington DC. The artist stood in front of Center Market, which is not pictured. Augustus Kollner, 1839. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

A cow relaxes at Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street, Washington DC. The artist stood in front of Center Market, which is not pictured. Augustus Kollner, 1839.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Secondary Sources: 

Lafayette Park, across from the White House, Washington DC. Carol Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. This is where Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Lafayette Park, across from the White House, Washington DC. Carol Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. This is where Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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