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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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

“Walk’d with Mr: English, as clerk of the market”

For evidence of what the job of clerk of the market in Boston actually entailed, we need to find a man not only conscientious enough to accept that job but also dedicated to write down and preserve his daily activities.

Fortunately, in 1792 the Boston town meeting elected “John Q. Adams” to be a clerk of the market.

Adams was then twenty-five years old, a young lawyer. He had seen a lot of Europe as a teenager working for his father and Francis Dana, the U.S. of A.’s minister to Russia. His father was now Vice President. He had just started to serve on town committees. And it was time for him to inspect bread.

Adams was not one of the twelve men chosen as clerks of the market in the first session of Boston’s big town meeting on 12 March. But some of those men begged off, and he was elected last among five new men on the afternoon of 27 March.

Adams didn’t record that election in his diary. In fact, he wasn’t even in town, having ridden out that morning to Worcester. (“Dined at How’s Marlborough. Singular couple he 6 1/2 feet long. She as much round.”) So I have no record of how he took the news. Maybe he was chosen because he wasn’t present to object.

Nonetheless, John Quincy embarked on his civic duty. The first mention appeared in his diary for 23 April:
Walk towards Eveg: Clerks of the market met at Coleman’s [tavern], but were interrupted by a cry of fire. Adjourned till to-morrow. fire soon extinguished.
The next day he wrote:
At Court all day. No business of much consequence done. Met the clerks of the market as by adjournment. Agreed upon our proceedings. To walk with Mr: [Thomas] English.
This tells us a couple of things. First, it took almost a month after election for the new clerks of the market to get organized. Second, they paired off to “walk,” or patrol the Faneuil Hall Market and the area surrounding it.

Adams made his first patrol on Tuesday, 1 May, and it was eventful:
Walk’d with Mr: English, as clerk of the market at 6. A.M. before breakfast, and again at 11. Seized a quantity of bread. A busy forenoon.
Clerks of the market were empowered to seize loaves of bread they deemed underweight for their prices. Sometimes this led to conflicts, as in this notice in the selectmen’s minutes for 29 Nov 1769:
Mr. [Joseph] Barrel, [Joseph?] Calf & [Benjamin] Andrews, a Committee from the Clerks of the Market Complain of Mr. Harris the Baker & his Servant Robert Davis, as having abused Mr. Barrel & Andrews, by charging the former with stealing their Bread & other ill Language & also Mr. Sircombs man named Cook—abused Mr. John Bernard.
The selectmen summoned all three of those bakers and presumably admonished them. (John Bernard was the son of the highly unpopular departed governor, but he was also a duly chosen town officer.)

John Quincy Adams didn’t record such friction. It’s tempting to think he and English took strict action on their first day to make sure the bakers understood their authority.

Adams never mentioned his market duty again until 2 November:
Eve & supper with Clerks of the market. Dull time.
And then on Wednesday, 28 November:
Snow almost gone. Walk’d with [Simon] Elliot as Clerk of the Market. 
Such sporadic references suggest that a clerk of the market didn’t patrol every day or even every week. Of course, it’s possible Adams did walk by the market stalls more regularly, but he was pretty thorough in recording his daily activities.

In March 1793 the Boston town meeting chose twelve new men to be clerks of the market for the following year. Again, John Quincy Adams didn't mention that election in his diary. His next remark about the position suggests that a year later he felt a little nostalgia for it, enough to attend an event on 28 March 1794:
Dinner of the Clerks of the market. Convivial; but too numerous; attended electioneering meeting.— returned to C[oncert?]. Hall. Stayed not long there. 
But only a little nostalgia.

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