Teaching with Thomas Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Chart

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

The President and the Parsnip: Thomas Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Chart, from our sibling blog Inside Adams, caught our eye as an interesting approach to understanding one aspect of Jefferson’s daily life, based on a document in his papers here at the Library of Congress. Julie Miller, the author of that post, generously offered these teaching ideas to follow up.

Vegetable Market Report, The Thomas Jefferson Papers

Follow Thomas Jefferson’s example and make your own vegetable market chart to track the seasonal availability of produce where you live. Start by recording the fruits and vegetables you see in grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or your own garden, and the dates of their first and last appearances. Compile the information in a table. Here are some questions and ideas you might consider as you study your table:

Compare Jefferson’s findings to yours.

  • What do they tell you about differences in region and climate?
  • What about change over time?
  • How does your access to these fruits and vegetables compare to Jefferson’s?
  • What accounts for the differences?

To think about: Jefferson recorded that, between 1801 and 1808, strawberries were available in Washington, D.C. from May to July, while the parsnip, a root vegetable, was available almost year-round, from June through the following April. Are strawberries and parsnips still available between these dates in Washington, D.C. today? When are they available where you live? Jefferson’s strawberries came from the vicinity of Washington; where do yours come from?

What fruits and vegetables do you see on Jefferson’s chart that are unfamiliar to you? What fruits and vegetables are on your chart that are not on Jefferson’s?

To think about: On Jefferson’s chart, I would pick out “corn sallad,” “sorrel,” and “salsafia” (Jefferson’s spelling was sometimes irregular). Just as Americans today buy and eat food brought to them by immigrants (tomatillos, for example), in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Americans learned about French food from refugees from France’s revolution. Jefferson’s butler Etienne Lemaire came to the United States from France in 1792 and lived in Philadelphia, where there was a community of French refugees. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the recipes he learned from Lemaire. Here is Lemaire’s recipe for vinegar syrup, made with sugar and raspberries, included in a May 25, 1809, letter to Jefferson.

Brainstorm a list of factors that have contributed to the transformation in American eating habits since the first decade of the nineteenth century, when Jefferson made his vegetable market chart. Investigate a few to learn how they make what you eat different from what Jefferson ate.

To think about: People who live in cities today typically eat food that comes from farther away than it did in Jefferson’s time. New Yorkers eat fruit from California, for example, and milk arrives at city supermarkets in refrigerated trucks instead of coming from neighborhood cows at the back door.

4 Comments

  1. Anne Bell
    June 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Great chart! This has lots of potential for cross disciplinary lessons. I would title it “what Thomas Jefferson did with his time since he coudn’t check Facebook”

  2. Mary E. Haas
    June 9, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Interesting document, but I had to read the lesson suggestions to be able to read the chart. Certainly asking geographic questions related to locations is appropriate as are the personal choices of what to plant and eat as suggested in the lesson.
    One of the major problems with using documents in the inability to read hand writings. Has the LOC has done any research on how this problem impacts the decisions teachers make on using documents and also how the students react to a document that is difficult to read?

  3. Julie Miller
    June 12, 2015 at 9:03 am

    If you click on the image of the vegetable chart, and then click again to enlarge it, Jefferson’s writing is much easier to read. Also, in the original blog post from Inside Adams, //blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2015/04/the-president-and-the-parsnip-thomas-jeffersons-vegetable-market-chart-1801-1808/?loclr=blogtea, I included a link to a published version of the chart in the Read More About It section. This is it: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.319510007360153;view=2up;seq=430

  4. Connie Williams
    June 14, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Talk about serendipity! The email announcement to this post just popped up as I am creating a presentation I’ll be giving to teachers about teaching with primary sources… I’m going to use this one! This is an excellent document to use with:
    agriculture classes – economics, geography, so many possibilities. Culinary classes could use it also. Thank you for sharing.

    Also – in regards to the question about handwriting. Check out this web page from Ancestry.com – it’s got great tips to help out:

    http://help.ancestry.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/4364/~/tips-for-reading-old-handwriting

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