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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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Meeting the Clerks of the Market

Last week at dinner, the conversation turned to the question of what colonial Boston’s clerks of the market did. This is the kind of the dinner I like.

The post of clerk of the market was established in English law well before the kingdom colonized America, and it came to the colonies in different ways. In Philadelphia, the city charter of 1701 gave the mayor the power to appoint those officials. In contrast, the Boston town meeting elected clerks of the market, starting with two men in 1649. By the mid-1700s, there were twelve, one for each ward.

Clerks of the market were among the town’s lowest-ranking elected offices. But the post was a stepping-stone for young gentlemen seeking higher positions in politics or society. Many prominent men once served as clerks of the market for a year.

In March 1769, for example, the new clerks of the market included John Singleton Copley, Elisha Hutchinson, John Bernard, and John Gore, Jr. In 1770 the nod went to John Pulling, John Andrews, Nathaniel Wheatley, and Henry Jackson, among others.

The main stated duty of the clerks of the market was to ensure that the loaves of bread and the butter sold at the town market conformed to the selectmen’s stipulations. Each year, those officials announced what would be a fair weight for a loaf of bread of a standard price and quality. The price stayed the same, but the weight varied depending on the cost of grain, with a fair profit for the bakers mixed in.

For instance, in February 1773 the selectmen
Ordered that the Assize of Bread be set at Wheat at 7/ [seven shillings] p. bushel, and that 6d. [sixpence, or about 7%] p. bushel be allowed to the Bakers for their Charges Pains and Livelihood, which is computed as follows Vizt.
  • A Loaf of Brown Bread 3/4 Wheat 1/4 Rye meal must weigh 2 [lbs.] 8 [oz.]
  • a 4d. Ditto not above 1/2 Indian Meal must weigh 3 [lbs.] 8 [oz.]
  • Bisket of a Copper price 4 [oz.] 2 [drachms]
This was a long-established form of price-fixing, designed to avoid food riots like those in the 1710s. The selectmen tried to balance the needs of the populace against those of the bakers, as we can see in this extract from the town records in 1789:
On the application of Majr. [Edward] Tuckerman & Mr. [William] Breed two of the Town Bakers — It was agreed by the Selectmen that there should be 4 ounces instead of 2 ounces difference in the weight between 4d. white Loaf Bread & 4d. Superfine Brick Bread — and the Clerks of the Market were accordingly acquainted with this alteration, for their government in the weighing the same —
As that entry shows, the clerks of the market were supposed to enforce the bread rules. The law empowered them to seize loaves that were underweight, and even to go into any bakery or house where they knew bread was being baked for sale and check on how heavy the loaves were.

But did the elected clerks of the market really do that work? Usually a few of the men selected on the first round excused themselves by pleading inability and/or paying a fine, necessitating a second round. That suggests that many of those gentlemen weren’t actually that keen on the honor of serving their town that way.

Boston already had a full-time clerk of Faneuil Hall Market administering the rent on stalls, maintaining the infrastructure, and overseeing the maintenance staff of one. So were the gentlemen chosen to be clerks of the market actually out inspecting the bakers’ stalls every week? 

TOMORROW: Reading a clerk of the market’s diary.

[The image above comes from Food and Streets’ posting about making and tasting bread from an eighteenth-century recipe.]

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