If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, you would encounter a large assortment of the city’s vegetable and meat merchants, selling their wares from the many wagons crowding the scene. Today, although these merchants have long since moved on to other areas of the city, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still a great place for people-watching. Traversing its brick walkways, you’ll see commuters rushing for trains, tourists following the Freedom Trail, shoppers carrying bundles, and even street performers entertaining passersby. But, even amidst so many reminders of present-day Bostonian life, the history of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still very evident.
Faneuil Hall, first built in 1742, has served as a marketplace since its beginnings and has witnessed speeches by historical figures such as Samuel Adams and James Otis as well as more recent lawmakers like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who declared his candidacy for president there in 1979. Quincy Market, built a generation later in the mid-1820s, accommodated the growing demand for shop space on what was then Boston’s waterfront, and provided an indoor shopping pavilion for shoppers and merchants seeking staples like eggs, cheese, and produce. Butchers selling meat began coming soon after. Evidence has been found that the butchering occurred on site.
While researching posts for this blog, I found an article in an 1886 edition of the Boston Daily Globe that vibrantly captured life at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, in Boston’s Victorian era. When looking through old newspapers, it’s rare to find such a vibrant first-hand account as the one below that shows Boston scenes that transpired so long ago. What follows is a transcription of that account, from the pages of the Boston Daily Globe, November 25, 1886, Page 4:
Great Fun Buying Fowl.
The Market Jammed with Thanksgiving Shoppers – Sights Seen and Bits of Curious Conversation Overheard.
She had come to the market with her mamma the afternoon before Thanksgiving to buy a turkey, and for the want of anything else to do for a minute jumped upon some scales that stood empty on the sidewalk just back of the Cradle of Liberty. She couldn’t manage the weights very well; but a rosy-cheeked, auburn-whiskered marketman, who doubtless looks as handsome as any in his Sunday clothes, threw himself into the breach. The young woman weighed 132 pounds.
“That isn’t very much, ” said the marketman, becoming acquainted in spite of himself. “I’ve got a daughter at home who is only 14, and she weighs 140.”
But 132 wasn’t bad, for the daughter of the old lady who was buying a turkey, besides being a favorite by her very looks and manner, was short and shapely. She must have been solid, too.
There are a hundred funny things at the market the day before Thanksgiving, because the stalls of Faneuil Hall and Quincy market and the narrow alleys between the rough counters improvised in the streets are crowded from early morning till late at night. The dealers are prepared for business. They not only stock the stalls fully, but buy loads of fowl that are brought in from the country and get men to sell them on commission at the stands. Perhaps twenty rows of these extend almost to the south sidewalk of South Market street, and perhaps 200 men, eager for a trade, stand by. A thousand people throng around and purchase, if they can decide to do so.
It is an odd sort of person who doesn’t buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. Here are a tall young man and a tall young woman, who looks like his wife, taking a lesson in social economy together. They depend a good deal on the honesty of the man who is extolling the youth and beauty of his birds. Here is a grey-haired matron who feels the breastbone of a turkey over with her black kid gloves to see if it is as soft as indifferently as if they could be bought for seventeen cents a pair. Here is a stylish young maiden with a music roll on one arm and
A Turkey, or the Legs of One,
sticking up, like the handle of a parasol, over the opposite shoulder. Here is a fat woman, dressed in a shawl that must have been brought from the old country, looking the counters over again to make sure that she had struck a good bargain; and little Mamie, looking satisfied in spite of the big load of fowl she is carrying, trudges along by her side and tries not to get lost till after Thanksgiving. Here is a policeman, majestic and self-possessed, paying for his dinner like other people out of a very ordinary-looking pocket-book; for why should the spirit of mortal be proud in a crowd like this? Here is a large-eyed, dark-skinned Italian boy ruinously selling thirty-six bundles of matches for twelve cents; at the risk, too, of seeming out of place. Here is a little man selling roasted chestnuts out of measures which have their inside bottoms half way up the sides. Here is a slight, pale-faced dame, in gaudy plush bonnet and ill-fitting threadbare cloak, making her way homeward as well as she can with a live duck under each arm. Here is General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, inquiring the price of turkeys at a stand where they are thirteen cents a pound, and passing sedately on.
A well-kept elderly gentleman, who seemed to know a great deal, stood on the steps of Quincy Market yesterday and surveyed the crowd. “There will be more of them here later,” said he, “when they get out of work. These commission men have been here since 4 or 5 in the morning. They sell for these fellows inside. A good many seem to think they get better bargains outside. Well, they do get fowl cheaper, but they get it poorer.”
“Oh, they are selling all the way from ninepence to eighteen and twenty cents a pound. These fellows don’t make more than 2 per cent profit on the whole, though a good seller will clear $10 or $12 or even $20 a day. It’s lively, though. I suppose they will be all sold out by 9 o’clock. Or, if there are some left, they go to the cold storage to be sold in sixty days, perhaps, or three months, at 4 or 5 cents a pound, for Sunday dinners at the boarding-houses or cheap hotels. There isn’t any waste.”
A GLOBE young man did not loaf for half an hour in the crowd without catching some curious bits of conversation.Mrs. McCarty and Mrs. McIntyre
who both live over in the seventh ward, came face to face in the middle of Quincy Hall, dropped their turkeys in the sawdust, and shook hands. “Well, now,” says Mrs. McCarty, “ain’t you a stranger. Ain’t ye niver coming over?” “Sure,” says Mrs. McIntyre, “I couldn’t tell where ye lived no more than a fool ; but Jamesie he told me it was number 15. Has the old man got work, thin?” “Faith, he has,” says Mrs. McCarty, “and the children won’t go hungry tomorrer.”
A rustic couple came down the hall looking this way and that, but faithfully keeping hold of hands. A fat, good-natured fellow selling bologna sausage in one of the stalls saw them, and said to his companion in arms who was cutting up a rib: “He needn’t cling to her so; nobody in her wants her.”
One of the marketmen outside very much hurt the feelings of a fine old Irish gentleman by talking to another customer because he wasn’t very quick to purchase. “These are all young, as you can see, and you can’t do better than fourteen cents.” remarked the marketman. “I find no fault with your fowl, my friend,” said the old fellow. “I know they were born yesterday; but if you don’t sell them cheaper now you will have to before night. I don’t believe that bird weighs twelve pounds anyhow.” “Oh, yes,” put in a neighboring marketman, in a low tone; “he’s all right with the scales. I’ve been watching him all day.”
A sad-eyed lady approached a young man who rested for a moment on the big stone steps. “Can you tell me, sir,” said she, “how much a 9¼ lb. turkey would come to at fourteen cents a pound? I think he charged me too much. But I was so confused with looking around that I couldn’t think. I could do it out in a minute if I was home.”
“Let’s see,” replied the young man, slowly, “9¼ lbs. at 14 cents a pound. Nine times 10 would be 90, and 9 times 4 would be 36; that’s $1.26. Fourteen times 1/4 would be 3½; that’s 1.29½. How much did he charge you?”
“He charged me $1.32,” said the woman not very disgustedly; “but that ain’t much. I guess he can have it,” and she took her basket up and went away.
Two portly, well-to-do gentlemen, both on Thanksgiving errands, met near the door of Faneuil Hall. One had made a purchase. “That’s a good turkey,” said he proudly, “and it only cost ninepence a pound. “Why don’t you try this man?”
“I think I will later,” replied the other. “Er – we lost Dr. Withrow, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” said the first, “I guess it’s all right; though I can’t help thinking it would have been better if he had come right out and said in the first place that he’d better go.”
“Yes, yes,” answered the second again; “he’s done right. Here’s this row coming on and there was a tempting offer. It’s all right.”
“How your daughter has grown,” exclaimed the first as he hurried away. The daughter was indeed a bouncing girl of 8.