Today’s post is guest authored by Julie Miller, historian of early America in the Library’s Manuscript Division
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.
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.
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
- Thomas Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Chart . Also see “Vegetable Market at Washington” in Hazard’s United States Commercial and Statistical Register, VI (June, 1842), page 409.
- You can access digital copies of Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Library of Congress website.
- Since the nineteenth century there have been several published editions of Jefferson’s papers. The modern published editions include: Julian P. Boyd, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 1950 – ) and J. Jefferson Looney, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Princeton University Press, 2004 -). A digital version of these published editions is available at Founders Online, National Archives.
Other Primary Sources:
- Bear, James A., Lucia Stanton, Charles T. Cullen, eds. Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826 (Princeton University Press, 1997).
- Cullen, Charles T. And Herbert A. Johnson, eds. The Papers of John Marshall (University of North Carolina Press; Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1977). Volume 2 includes an account book, July 1788 – December 1795 that shows Marshall’s market purchases before he lived in Washington.
- Hone, Philip. The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 ed Allan Nevins (Dodd, Mead, 1927).
- Lemaire, Etienne. Market Accounts of Etienne Lemaire, 1806-1809. Huntington Library. These are in French. For a translation see: Amy Rider, “The 1806 Market Accounts of Etienne Lemaire,” Department of Historical Research, Colonial Williamsburg, 1996. For biographical information on Etienne Lemaire, see the editorial note in Founders Online following Etienne Lemaire to Thomas Jefferson, May 10, 1802 letter.
- Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans (Penguin, 1997). First published in 1832.
- Bryan, Wilhelmus Bogart. A History of the National Capital (MacMillan, 1914-1916). Includes histories of Washington’s markets.
- De Voe, Thomas F. The Market Book: Containing a Historical Account of the Public Markets of the City of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Booklyn, with a Brief Description of Every Article of Human Food Sold Therein (New York, 1862).
- DuPuis, E. Melanie. Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink (New York University Press, 2002).
- Gatewood, Willard B., Jr. “John Francis Cook: Antebellum Black Presbyterian.” American Presbyterians 67 (Fall 1989): 221-229. Cook was Alethia Browning Tanner’s nephew, this article includes information about her.
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008). The Hemingses are among the slave families documented in the Martha Jefferson/Anne Cary Randolph household account books.
- Hatch, Peter. “Thomas Jefferson’s Favorite Vegetables,” Twinleaf Journal Online, 2000.
- Kimball, Marie. Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book (University Press of Virginia, 1976). Includes some of Etienne Lemaire’s recipes.
- Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877 (Hill and Wang, 2003). An overview of slavery in the United States, including slavery in the cities, with good bibliographies.
- Lobel, Cindy. Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (University of Chicago Press, 2014).
- Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women (Gale Research, 1992-2003). Includes an entry on Alethia Browning Tanner.
- Stanton, Lucia C. “Those Who Labor for my Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (University of Virginia Press, 2012).
- Topham, Washington. “Centre Market and Vicinity.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 26 (1924): 1-88. References to Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall shopping at Center Market are on page 41. Since Topham gives no sources for his information it is hard to know if he is reporting gossip or fact. Marshall’s account book, however, records his market purchases at an earlier period. See The Papers of John Marshall ed. Cullen, above.
- Wulf, Andrea. Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation ( Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).