Monday, November 25, 2019

Thanksgiving at Washington Market, New York City

Opened in 1812, Washington Market remained an extremely busy complex; by the 1860s its many buildings were "battered" and by the 1960s they were demolished. Thanksgiving Eve was packed with shoppers for turkeys.
Although there were several large markets in New York City, including Fulton Market, Washington Market did a huge business - "About three thousand persons hold stalls in Washington Market" according to a 1867 Harper's article.  The amount of meat sold was staggering - "It is estimated that over $180,000 are daily disbursed for animal food alone in the market." Fruit and vegetables were also sold as detailed in the article. 

The Washington Market of to-day is not the Washington Market of old.  It is a much fresher and more healthy-looking place than the old ramshackle affair of former years.

The Thanksgiving Eve surroundings of Washington market are, however, the same now as they have ever been.  The busy buyers of turkeys and other Thanksgiving Day edibles swarm about it like bees around a hive, and jostle one another in its narrow passageways.

Big turkeys and little turkeys hang, cold in death, from rows upon rows of cruel hooks, their plump or skinny, white or pinkish breasts decorated with little bright-colored rosettes, in mockery of the pitiless fate that has already befallen them, and the cruel mutilation which is to overtake them on the morrow.  Ducks and geese and chickens are piled in mounds on the zinc covered counters, and the carcasses of fallen deer hand from hooks, while banks of green-topped celery and rosy-cheeked apples lend color to the scene.

Small tradesmen fill up the spaces between the regular market stalls with appetizing stores of hares, rabbits, and other small game, and big butchers in iron-starched white or checked aprons move around like jolly warders at a fair.  At the street corners outside of the market little rosy-cheeked girls, and old women whose cheeks are no longer rosy, sit behind huge baskets of oranges and apples.

The interior view looking down one of the aisles of the big market building on the afternoon preceding Thanksgiving Day. The evening rush has not yet set in.  A few hours later, and the passageway will be almost impassable, and there will be an indescribable confusion of sounds, as shrill-voiced women clamor for Thanksgiving bargains, and the vendors in the market cry forth the excellence of their wholesome wares.
Thanksgiving Eve   Harper’s Weekly, November 28th, 1885

Altogether there are eleven markets in this city, but only two call for especial description. These are named respectively Washington and Fulton markets, of which the first is devoted principally to meat, fruit, and vegetables, and the second to fish and poultry. The nine other markets, which are located mostly on the quays of the East River, are small in size, and obtain their supplies chiefly from the first-named emporium. Washington Market is about the largest food dépôt in the world, on account of its being generally devoted to the sale of meat, vegetables, poultry, fruit, and other things, instead of there being separate markets, as in London and other large towns, for each distinct article. The corner-stone of the building was laid in the year 1808, but the edifice was not completed until four years later, in consequence of the stoppage caused to enterprise by war being declared between Great Britain and America. When the structure was first erected it was thought to be quite a handsome addition to the architecture of the city; but at the present time, when handsome buildings are the rule and ugly ones the exception in New York, its [1867] battered, dingy exterior and dirty stone columns speak more of utility and age and hard-working service than of the beautiful. It is appropriately named after the great Liberator — the honored Washington; for there seems to be some connection between the provider of a nation and a nation's founder. The actual market-place lies in a block between Vesey and Fulton streets, along Washington, and consists of a series of rectangular buildings—one within the other, we might say— centred by a circular building with a small cupola on top; but the many little stalls, besides stores and extensive warehouses, which really belong to the structure, cause the “food repository” to extend to a very great distance beyond its legitimate limits—from Liberty Street, in fact, down to North Moore Street—in one straight line. About three thousand persons hold stalls in Washington Market, and about thirty thousand may be said to earn their livelihood through its means; while the mass of buyers who flock thither is immense—over a hundred thousand often coming there during the course of a day in the busy Christmas season. Here business is transacted, we might say, almost every hour of the day and night, and there seems to be no cessation at any time to the buying and selling that goes on. “Will you buy, buy, buy?”—or similar words like those with which the present paper opened— strike one's ear on entering within the charmed limits. “Will you buy? will you buy?” are the last words you hear on leaving, and they ring in your ear, as aforesaid, like a vanishing chime.

The first glance at Washington Market is, on the whole, “beefy.” One sees at every side tremendous sides of oxen, vast quarters of beef, huge sirloins, gigantic ribs, and long legs, like those of the Paphian bull, hanging from the low ceiling in front of and around the stalls; while your olfactory organs are saluted with the ever-increasing effluvia of raw meat, which, although the butchers appear to grow fat upon it, is not exactly qualified to give one an appetite should you wander through the market just before dinner-time. After a little time, however, you find out that other descriptions of meat besides beef are also present. Mutton, juicy and well clothed with a superstratum of pure white fat, hangs around in profusion. Our friend piggy too—“the gintleman wot pays the rint,” according to Fenian philosophers—is not forgotten. And haunches of venison from the Far West, besides pens of cackling fowls, may be spied out in odd corners, in addition to piles of butter and mounds of cheese—the whole presenting to the astonished vision of the observer a regular hecatomb of food, which will be all consumed by the masticatory process. Plump and portly butchers meet you on every side, anxious to promote custom, and affable in imparting information as to the state of the market; and you are jostled and turned about, if you stop in your progress for a moment, by the motley throng of buyers, who wish to get some tid-bit cheap, and who will inform a passing dealer that “So-andso round the corner will let them have that article for half the price.” The butcher advises them to go to “So-and-so” and purchase there, though all the while he is not averse at the same time to inform them of the particular excellence of his especial articles.

Bread is usually considered the “staff” of life, but still meat is one of its most convenient crutches, and is indeed regarded as of such an importance in one's daily bill of fare that it calls aloud for notice. It may be stated at first start that nearly three hundred and sixty tons of meat are daily consumed in New York city alone—a truly alarming amount to contemplate if one considers for a moment what a ton of meat is! This provision for the wants of Broadway and the Bowery is supplied from the great wholesale markets up town at One Hundredth Street and the “Bull's Head,” a butchers' rendezvous in Forty-fourth Street, at which places all animals coming into the city are slaughtered at the abattoirs provided for the purpose. There is another large dépôt, too, for meat at the Communipaw abattoirs [slaughter-house] in New Jersey, which has recently been opened, and which promises shortly to relieve the over-crowded markets “up town.” The principal quarters from which the meat supply comes are the States of Illinois, Ohio, New York, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, and Michigan, placing them in order according to the proportionate number of animals each State sends to the New York markets. The wholesale butchers buy their meat at an estimated net weight which is supposed, as it is termed, to “sink the offal.” Thus an ordinary well-fed ox will give about 850 pounds of dressed meat; a sheep 45; a calf 60; and a pig about 120 pounds. Taking an average from the winter results of the past year, the sales of livestock every week are: oxen, 6500; sheep, 2500; calves, 1200; and pigs 20,000—which numbers represent an aggregate weekly amount of 8,109,500 pounds of animal food. The Empire City has a good digestion. The only sensible alteration effected in the sales of meat during the year is between the months of March and April; when the great shad supply comes into the fish market and causes the meat quotations to fluctuate. In summer, of course, during the very hot weather, there is a proportionate diminution in the consumption of meat according to the rise of the thermometer, but this is not nearly so great as that which affects the supply during the shad season.

At a very early hour in the morning the meat comes in. From 3 o'clock, and often from 2, especially on Saturday mornings, the supplies begin to pour in, and continue doing so from the various dépôts up town and from the river until 7 or 8 o'clock; heavy loaded wagons block up the whole length of Washington Street; and there is hardly room for a small calf to wedge himself in among the crush of vehicles which bring in the produce to this great entrepôt. The stream of wagons appears to be ever augmented. No sooner are the first cars cleared out than a fresh relay is turned on; and they drag on their course, are unloaded, and wend their way back to the great dépôt at the Bull's Head, and the other dépôt up town at One Hundredth Street, while the market continues to get fuller and fuller with the meat required for the consumption of the city. The market is now stocked, and the retail buyers come on the scene. It is not to be wondered at that such an immense business should be transacted at Washington Market, when we consider that not only does it supply the million inhabitants of this city, but it has also to provide for the wants of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and many towns on the Jersey shore, and for others for a long distance up the Hudson. On an average statement, Washington Market provides food for about two millions of persons every day; and, consequently, about half or more of the supply brought into it every morning is sent away in bulk again shortly afterward, apart from the vast retail trade done for the actual wants of New York. Housekeepers and the butchers of the town and its suburbs commence their business early too. The supplies continue coming in long after they have also set to work at buying out, and thus for about a couple of hours the wholesale and retail dealers carry on their respective trades at the same time. It is estimated that over $180,000 are daily disbursed for animal food alone in the market. The inhabitants of this city are the largest meat-eaters, one might say, in the world. London ranks second in the list of the anti-vegetarians, while Paris stands lowest in the list; the last-named capital, however, makes up for this falling off in animal food by being the largest consumer of bread. The reason of this great meat expenditure of New York is, without doubt, owing to waste, under which term may be comprised bad household management and bad cookery. An old proverb holds good that God sent meat and the devil sent cooks; but his Satanic Majesty must have made a most unfair distribution of his servants, if cooks be considered under that category, as some towns seem to be more cursed by bad cooks—such as would make Brillat Savarin gnash his teeth in impotent rage— than others. 

Another reason for this in New York is, that a very large portion of the population live in boarding-houses, and have no homes of their own to practice economy even if they had the mind to do it. They pay a fixed sum which includes the rent of their room, the use of furniture, and their board of two or three meals per diem. The proprietor, or landlady of the house, furnishes the board, calculating for the gross number of boarders that she has. She usually lays in a larger amount of food than is required for the actual wants of the establishment, in order to be certain to “have enough.” The best meat is bought in large pieces; for perhaps eight boarders she buys a piece of roasting beef weighing some thirteen or fourteen pounds for dinner or supper. This is wastefully cooked, most likely, before a large fire, and as a necessary consequence a large percentage is absorbed and wasted through bad management. Then, when it comes on the table, as it has no dressing or any little sauce piquante to give it a relish and help it out, it is eaten up in toto without leaving any residue save the bones, which are thrown away on the morrow. It is the same way all the year round; beef-steak, mutton-chops, boiled beef, roast beef, and occasionally veal and pork, dressed in a similar manner, are wasted, and without any attempt at economizing through the portals of Soyer's Cookery Book. It is not so with our Gallic friends. In Paris, by dint of good cooks, the people eat far less meat, and we venture to say dine far better, and certainly far less extravagantly and without any uneasy after-thought about their digestive organs, than they do here in the Empire City, with all its wealth and its “European plan” of eating. This is a digression, however. Revenons à nos moutons !

Washington Market must not be judged merely from a “meaty” point of view. Its chief pride consists in its fruit and vegetables, and on these it can well afford to take its stand. The amount of fruit alone consumed in the city of New York during the year, most of which goes through this market, is something nearly incredible to realize. Every one seems to eat it, or dispose of it in some way or other, and it is bought not only by the rich and well-to-do but also by the poorest urchin in the metropolis. Italy is considered a fruit-eating country, where the lazaroni loll about all day under the burning sun of that southern clime luxuriating on grapes and water-melons, but the supply which New York consumes would really put the Land of the Madonna to the blush. From early spring until the depth of winter fruit of every description is bought and sold in the markets and the streets, and imported and exported from New York. It is a trade in which thousands, who rise while the rest of the city is buried in sleep, and go to bed when the metropolis is just wide awake, are engaged in, and in which many fortunes are made and as many often lost, as it is a somewhat hazardous speculation in the hot months. The trade employs a perfect fleet of small boats and coasting vessels to itself. It regulates the departure and arrival of the various goods trains on the different lines of railways - nay, it has a special express carriage of its own. In fact, fruit is all-important in our city; and its supply and consumption exceed in their magnitude every other article in the great food quarter. 

Fruit and vegetables are all in all to Washington Market; and this must not be wondered at when it is considered that in the height of the season nearly six hundred market wagons from New Jersey and Long Island daily bring in these articles, besides what comes by water. We are great devourers of market produce, as figures show. To commence at the beginning of the fruit and vegetable supply, the reader ought most properly to inspect the market garden regions of Long Island, New Jersey, and the western portion of New York, from whence the supplies are brought to Washington Market. Here acres upon acres are devoted to the cultivation of potatoes, cabbages, and all sorts of vegetables, besides the many which are laid under contribution for the fruiterer's trade. Over on the Long Island shore, where the vegetables principally come from, there are miles upon miles of farm ground devoted to this purpose; and these are most commonly looked after by the Dutch Fraus, who see to the house and garden.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine.  July 1867

More posts on Thanksgiving HERE
More posts on Turkeys HERE

©2019 Patricia Bixler Reber
Researching Food History HOME

No comments:

Post a Comment