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The geography of urban food retail: locational principles of public market provisioning in New York City, 1790–1860

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2015

Barnard College, Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027, USA


This article contributes to discussions about the spatial organization of urban food retail on empirical and theoretical grounds. As a case-study, it presents new analysis of New York City's public market system between 1790 and 1860, documenting its expansion and geography relative to urban growth, and how the deregulation of the meat trade by the 1840s reshaped this vital infrastructure. More broadly, it theorizes the municipal market system's geographic principles, emphasizing its countervailing dynamics of agglomeration and dispersal. Exploiting the city's transition from a public to a free market model, it further demonstrates how distinct political economies produced profoundly different geographies of retail food distribution.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 On European cities: Kaplan, S.L., Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade during the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca, 1984)Google Scholar; Scola, R., Feeding the Victorian City: The Food Supply of Manchester, 1770–1870 (Manchester, 1992)Google Scholar; Watts, S., Meat Matters: Butchers, Politics, and Market Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Rochester, 2006)Google Scholar; Atkins, P., Lummel, P. and Oddy, D. (eds.), Food and the City in Europe since 1800 (Ashgate, 2007)Google Scholar; D. Brantz, ‘Slaughter in the city: the establishment of public abattoirs in Paris and Berlin, 1780–1914’, University of Chicago Ph.D. thesis, 2003. On American cities, especially New York: Horowitz, R., Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (Baltimore, 2006)Google Scholar; Th.D. Beal, ‘Selling Gotham: the retail trade in New York City from the public market to Alexander T. Stewart's marble palace, 1625–1860’, State University of New York at Stony Brook Ph.D. thesis, 1998; Lobel, C.R., Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (Chicago, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Baics, G., ‘Is access to food a public good? Meat provisioning in early New York City, 1790–1820’, Journal of Urban History, 39 (2013), 643–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Baics, G., ‘Meat consumption in nineteenth-century New York: quantity, distribution, and quality, or notes on the “antebellum puzzle”’, in Greif, A., Kiesling, L. and Nye, J. (eds.), Institutions, Innovation, and Industrialization: Essays in Economic History and Development (Princeton, 2015), 97127Google Scholar; G. Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham: a social history of urban provisioning, 1780–1860’, Northwestern University Ph.D. thesis, 2009. Comparative work: Horowitz, R., Pilcher, J.M. and Watts, S., ‘Meat for the multitudes: market culture in Paris, New York City, and Mexico City over the long nineteenth century’, American Historical Review, 109 (2004), 1055–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lee, P.Y. (ed.), Meat, Modernity, and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse (Durham, NC, 2008)Google Scholar.

2 On public markets: Schmiechen, J. and Carls, K., The British Market Hall: A Social and Architectural History (New Haven, 1999)Google Scholar; Tangires, H., Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore, 2003)Google Scholar; Guàrdia, M. and Oyón, J.L. (eds.), Hacer ciudad a través de los mercados. Europa, siglos XIX y XX (Barcelona, 2012)Google Scholar.

3 Novak, W., The People's Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1996), 83113Google Scholar; Tangires, Public Markets, 3–25; Horowitz, Pilcher and Watts, ‘Meat for the multitudes’, 1055–9, 1064–5; Baics, ‘Is access to food’, 654–8; Baics, ‘Meat consumption’, 118–23.

4 For precise population counts: 33,131 (1790); 123,706 (1820); 312,710 (1840); 813,669 (1860). Rosenwaike, I., Population History of New York City (Syracuse, 1972), 36Google Scholar.

5 On deregulation: Tangires, Public Markets, 71–94; R. Horowitz, ‘The politics of meat shopping in antebellum New York City’, in Lee (ed.), Meat, Modernity, 167–77; Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham’, 84–108; Beal, ‘Selling Gotham’, 329–42.

6 Legislation dates back to the 1670s. In the Early Republican period, the Common Council regularly affirmed this crucial clause of the market laws. Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham’, 44–5.

7 In my estimates for 1790–1818, New Yorkers ate about 160 pounds of butcher's meat per capita annually, over half of which derived from beef, a huge amount by international comparisons. Importantly, these figures do not account for preserved meat (ham, sausage, lard, salted pork and beef, smoked beef, corned beef) or poultry, fowl and game. Baics, ‘Is access to food’, 645–51; Baics, ‘Meat consumption’, 100–3.

8 An invaluable source is Jefferson Market butcher Thomas F. De Voe, who authored two books in the 1860s about the history of New York City markets. De Voe, Th.F., The Market Book: A History of the Public Markets of the City of New York (New York, 1970)Google Scholar. He also generated extensive manuscript records, available at the New-York Historical Society Manuscripts Division (NYHS-MD).

9 This short discussion draws on Berry's treatise of central-place theory and its application to urban retail. Berry, B.J.L., Geography of Market Centers and Retail Distribution (Edgewood Cliffs, 1967)Google Scholar. See also: Kivell, T. and Shaw, G., ‘The study of retail location’, in Dawson, J.A. (ed.), Retail Geography (London, 1980), 95155Google Scholar; Lesger, C., ‘Patterns of retail location and urban form in Amsterdam in the mid-eighteenth century’, Urban History, 38 (2011), 26–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Berry, B.J.L. and Garrison, W.L., ‘A note on central-place theory and the range of a good’, Economic Geography, 34 (1958), 304–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berry, Geography of Market Centers, 10–20, 42–57; Berry, B.J.L., ‘Internal structure of the city’, Law and Contemporary Problems, 30 (1965), 116–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Berry identifies five levels of retail hierarchy: isolated convenience stores, neighbourhood, community and regional shopping centres and the central business district. Berry, Geography of Market Centers, 17, 44–6; Berry, ‘Developments in urban business patterns’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 49 (1959), 147–9; Davies, R.L., ‘Structural models of retail distribution: analogies with settlement and urban land-use theories’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 57 (1972), 64–9Google Scholar.

12 This is also referred to as monopolistic competition. Berry, Geography of Market Centers, 63.

13 On the rhythms of food shopping: Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham’, 114–41.

14 In other words, it is endogenous to urbanization. Vance, J.E. Jr, The Merchant's World: The Geography of Wholesaling (Englewood Cliffs, 1970), 140–2Google Scholar.

15 The political process serves as a mediating, exogenous factor.

16 This discussion is influenced by Vance's seminal work on the geography of wholesaling, formulated as an alternative to central-place theory to explain the development of the American urban system. Vance, Merchant's World.

17 For the number of stalls, De Voe's books and manuscripts, and the Common Council's published and archival records were consulted. Stall counts and/or butcher lists are available for specific years. For the missing years, I made informed estimates using De Voe's histories. De Voe, Market Book; NYHS-MD, Th.F. De Voe, Manuscript Records: ‘Ground plans of the public markets in New York City, 1694–1866’, ‘List of butchers in N.Y.C. with some biographical notes, 1656–1844’, ‘New York City markets collection, ca. 1817–ca. 1878, 1–2’. Published municipal sources: New York (NY), Common Council, Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784–1831, 19 vols. (New York, 1917); Matteson, D.M., Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784–1831: Analytical Index (New York, 1930)Google Scholar. From the New York City Municipal Archives, the Market Committee files in the Common Council Microfilm Database (1670–1831) (CCMD) and the City Clerk Filed Papers (CCFP) were consulted. CCMD: ‘Market Committee (1818) 66:1535’; CCFP: Returns of different markets, 1847, 1848, 1855, 1867’.

18 For the number of meat shops, a consistent series of city directories was consulted. The starting date of 1842/43 (1842 in Figure 1) corresponds to deregulation in January 1843. Doggett, J. Jr, The New York City Directory, for 1842 and 1843. Containing Fifty-Five Thousand Names: Together with Other Valuable Information (New York, 1842)Google Scholar, and subsequent editions with slight variations of title covering years 1842/43 to 1850/51; Doggett, J. Jr and Rode, Ch.R., The New York City Directory, for 1851–1852 (New York, 1851)Google Scholar; Ch.Rode, R., The New York City Directory, for 1852–1853 (New York, 1852)Google Scholar, and subsequent editions for 1853/54 and 1854/55.

19 Ice-boxes, consisting of two wooden boxes with insulating material in between, could only store food for a relatively short period.

20 On unlicensed sales: Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham’, 91–3, 303–8.

21 Assuming a ratio of 491 consumers per butcher stall (the average of 1800–20), the public market system lacked 37% of needed retail capacity by the 1830s. Since butchers could narrowly increase their daily turnover, it is more reasonable to estimate the informal economy at 20–5%.

22 For a detailed spatial analysis: Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham’, 141–85, 250–67.

23 For the locations of unlicensed vendors and meat shops: CCFP: Markets (1843), ‘Violations of market laws, Nov.–Dec. 1841’; Markets (1844), ‘Applicants for butcher's license for meat shops’.

24 For 1792, excise taxes were calculated from the amount of market fees collected, the number of butcher stalls at the individual markets, and their relative value according to the council. Common Council, Minutes, vol. 1, 516–19, 771; De Voe, Market Book, 319. For 1818, excise taxes are available, although incompletely, for Fly, Washington, Catharine, Spring, Duane and Centre Markets. For the missing months, estimates were made with comparable data from 1816. For marketplaces where taxes are not available, a one-to-one relationship was assumed between the number of stalls and volume of trade. CCMD: ‘Market Committee (1816) 59:1416’, ‘Market Committee (1818) 66:1535’, ‘Market Committee: Stalls & Licenses (July–Dec. 1818) 66:1537’; De Voe, Market Book, 235.

25 Butcher rents and market fees for 1835, 1840 (1839 rents, 1840 fees), 1845, 1855 come from the comptroller's annual reports. New York (NY), Annual Report of the Comptroller, with the Accounts of the Corporation of the City of New York, for the Year Ending with the Thirty-First Day of December, 1835. Also, the Account Current of the Commissioners of the Sinking Fund, for the Same Period (New York, 1836), 62–3, and subsequent reports with slight variations of title for years 1839, 88–9; 1840, 17–18; 1845, 67–70; 1855, 48–53.

26 For ward-level population: Rosenwaike, Population History, 36; Ernst, R., Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825–1863 (New York, 1949)Google Scholar, Appendix 3, 191; United States Census Office, Census for 1820. Published by Authority of an Act of Congress, under the Direction of the Secretary of State (Washington, DC, 1821), 62Google Scholar; New York (State), Secretary's Office, Census of the State of New York for 1835; Containing an Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the State, with Other Statistical Information (Albany, 1836)Google Scholar; New York (State), Secretary's Office, Census of the State of New York for 1855. Prepared from the Original Returns (Albany, 1857)Google Scholar.

27 The average distance between any one marketplace and its three closest neighbours was about 1km. With the exception of Centre and Essex, all marketplaces continued to be located near the riverfronts.

28 For this and the following maps, I drew approximate catchment areas based on the public markets’ volume of trade as indicated by butcher rents, excluding the increasingly wholesale-oriented Washington and Fulton Markets. For methodology: Baics, ‘Feeding Gotham’, 162–72.

29 In this regard, New York's trajectory paralleled developments in other nineteenth-century western cities, including Danish urban centres as described by Toftgaard in this issue.

30 For bakers, see Lesger for Amsterdam (1742), Pred for New York (1840) and Berry et al. for Rio de Janeiro (1870). Similarly, Robichaud documents the dispersal of butchers in San Francisco (1860–1900). Lesger, ‘Patterns of retail location’, 32; Pred, A.R., The Spatial Dynamics of U.S. Urban-Industrial Growth, 1800–1914. Interpretive and Theoretical Essays (Cambridge, 1966), 206Google Scholar; W. Berry, Z. Frank and W. Steiner, ‘Terrain of history’, Stanford Spatial History Project (SSHP):; A. Robichaud, ‘Animal city’, SSHP:, both accessed 30 Oct. 2014.

31 This point also underlines the meaningful distinction made by N. Fava, M. Guàrdia and J.L. Oyón between the more robust and enduring Parisian model of polycentric market system, adopted in many European cities including Berlin and Budapest, and exemplified by their study of Barcelona in this issue, and the less successful arrangement of centrally located marketplaces, widely documented for Great Britain, for which Danish cities examined here by Toftgaard provide another example.

32 Baics, ‘Is access to food’, 654–8; Baics, ‘Meat consumption’, 118–23.

33 See Fava, Guàrdia and Oyón on Barcelona, and Kelley on London in this issue.

34 See Fava, Guàrdia and Oyón in this issue.