J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Fresh Meat in Besieged Boston

Here’s another extract from William Cheever’s diary of the siege of Boston, just put online by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It describes how food prices shot up in the summer of 1775:

Augst. 12. Fresh Provisions have been very scarce and high for some time past: Sheep selling at 6 or 8 Doll[ar]s: apiece, Ducks 2 Doll: a pair: Squabs 1 Dollar, Butter 1/4 doll:; Eggs 2 pistareens per doz: and other things in the like proportion.
On 30 November, Cheever recorded a new set of prices, again because they were so high:
Provisions and Fuel have been extremely scarce and high for some Weeks past; Wood selling for £25 O.T. the Cord — Coal (Newcastle) £36 O.T. — Charcoal 50/ O. T. Sheep £3 sterl’g, Hogs at the rate of 1/6 sterl’g alive, Geese a Guinea per Pair; Fowls 5/ sterl’g a Piece, Cheese 1/ sterl’g lb, Butter 2/ sterl’g — every thing in like propor’n.
Two items appear on both lists: sheep and butter. Cheever recorded the prices in different currencies, making the comparison a bit harder, but the standard ratio was one Spanish dollar to six British shillings. Thus, in August a sheep cost up to 48s., or £2.8s, while in November the “extremely…high” cost was £3.

Butter was apparently a quarter-dollar, or 18 pence, per pound in August. (Cheever didn’t record the unit, so I’m guessing.) It was two shillings, or 24 pence, per pound in November. Evidently between those months it became harder to obtain butter, but no harder—maybe even easier—to obtain sheep.

Cheever’s diary also offers some explanation why:
15 [August]. This afternoon arrived a number of Transports that went about a fortnight since after Provisions etc: which it is said have brought from Gardiner’s & Fisher’s Island 1900 Sheep, 101 head of Cattle, 70 Hogs, some Cheese, Butter, Eggs, and Wood. The Transports were man’d with Refugees, Sailors & about 100 Soldiers. . . .

17. A quantity of Beef delivered out from the Market-house to the Inhabitants at 8d per lb.
Cheever and his father didn’t buy any of that meat until the next month, however:
Sept. 4. A Vessell or so now and then drops in with Cattle, etc: bought a quarter of one to day which will make the first fresh Provision in the family since my Mamma, etc., went out.

5th. Cattle, Sheep, Hogs, etc., which were brought from Quebeck and N. Scotia have been selling two days past: out of which my Father bought two Oxen.
Colonial Americans were used to seeing their food supply fluctuate over an annual cycle. Fresh vegetables were scarce in the winter, of course, but that season was the usual time to slaughter cows because the large carcasses lasted longer than in summer. The siege apparently disrupted the usual pattern inside Boston as the American army stopped food deliveries by land.

The worst months for overall food supply, it appears, were in the middle of 1775. Word of the rebellion was just reaching London, so the government hadn’t had time to organize and send a resupply fleet. By autumn, cargo ships were arriving from Great Britain and other parts of the empire. In addition, as described in Cheever’s diary, the Royal Navy raided Long Island, New York, and elsewhere for livestock.

The British army was even able to seize some cattle from Cambridge, where the enemy had his headquarters:
Nov. 9. Several Companies were boated over to Phip’s Farm & brought off some Cattle at noon day under Cover of a Ship in the river, Cannon on Charlestown point, & their own Floats, etc; without any Loss.
TOMORROW: Military justice.


Waldo4me said...

"Evidently between those months it became harder to obtain butter, but no harder—maybe even easier—to obtain sheep."

These were also seasonal. Lambs born in the spring would be large enough to slaughter in the fall, bringing a new supply to the market. Conversely, cows would have "freshened" (given birth) in the spring and would have been in full milk all summer. But, since the gestation period of a cow is nine months, most would have been bred in the summer and would be becoming "dry" by fall. This would be necessary to insure a live healthy calf by the next spring.

This cycle stayed intact until the early 20th century. Food supply was quite different before supermarkets!

Vern said...

Wasn't it 20 shillings per pound* back then too? That means the August price of 8 dollars or 48s. was only 2 pounds 8 shillings, or just under 2.5 pounds. That makes sense if the November price then went up to a full 3 pounds, which would also be 60s. or 10 Spanish dollars at the exchange rate you cited.

(*There were 12 pence per shilling though, so maybe you mixed up using that 12, not the 20.)

J. L. Bell said...

Did I get the conversion factors mixed up? Yes, I did. Even though I know it was 20 shillings to a pound, 21 to a guinea. I’ll make the corrections—thanks!