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Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860

Author(s):Baics, Gergely
Reviewer(s):Cain, Louis P.

Published by EH.Net (February 2017)

Gergely Baics, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.  xv + 347 pp.  $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16879-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Louis P. Cain, Department of Economics, Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago.

In Feeding Gotham, Gergely Baics, assistant professor of history and urban studies at Barnard College, describes in fascinating detail how food (meat, in particular) was supplied to antebellum New Yorkers and examines the economic and geographic consequences of New York City’s transition from public to private food markets.  Baics sets the public sector’s lessening involvement with the food supply in apposition to its increasing involvement with the Croton River water supply.  Until 1843, meat sales, the business that anchored New York’s markets, were restricted to licensed butchers.  As Baics argues, the decision to deregulate the butchers’ trade reflected a “growing distrust of monopolistic privileges and greater embrace of open entry” (p. 5) for all food sales.  Baics notes the irony that the era’s social and health reformers were actively seeking the regulation of housing, but not of food.

Under the common law, local governments were responsible for maintaining well-ordered markets, what was termed “market overt.”  All transactions had to be witnessed, and public markets were the answer to the question of when property rights in commodities were legally transferred.  Over time, the notion that only chattels exchanged in such markets were of guaranteed legality proved unrealistic.  By the late eighteenth century, market overt and its protective regulations had become an impediment to most trade.  Yet, as public markets disappeared, government’s “police powers” remained, and quality-control ordinances were common.  As Baics notes, the enforcement of such ordinances proved almost impossible in a world of many individual points of sale.  Caveat emptor also remained and allowed aggrieved buyers to sue sellers.  This was a system that worked well for non-perishable items and the rich, but less so for perishable items and the poor.  The desire of all concerned to have some assurance of safety helps explain why public food markets persisted long after such markets disappeared for other commodities.

Feeding Gotham is divided into three parts.  Chapter 1 provides a general overview that emphasizes three major topics.  One is what Baics characterizes as the political economy of public markets and how that reflects the interests of buyers, sellers, and regulators.  Two is a discussion of the deregulation of buyers’ access to food as rapid population growth led to an expansion of sellers operating outside public markets.  Third is how the fiscal demands of major public works, such as the Croton waterworks, competed with the city’s ability to make the necessary construction and maintenance investments in public market infrastructure.

Early markets were neighborhood institutions, financed by the buyers and sellers, but by 1810 financial responsibility was shifting to the city.  For the next three decades, public food markets grew with population, but the market system began to shrink with the Panic of 1837.  Baics notes the city’s revenues from stall rents, fees assessed on meat sales, and premiums for prime market space were greater than direct costs, but less than cost defined to include the opportunity cost of the capital invested in these markets.  For many buyers, that revenue stream was viewed as a tax which increased food prices, and, by the mid-1830s, the growing quantity of food sold outside public markets made that clear.  Even before the Panic, the city’s revenue from these markets was a declining share of the total.  By the late 1830s, the balance of public opinion had shifted from food access viewed as a public good toward free markets.  That licensed butchers sought to restrict sales to those with a license was viewed as simple rent-seeking.

The second part, focused on the years up to 1820, is divided into three chapters, all of which demonstrate Baics’ command of advanced statistical and geographical techniques.  Chapter 2 presents estimates of meat consumption based on market fees and uses GIS mapping to describe the geography of food (meat) access.   Baics addresses three questions, all of which he answers in the affirmative.  Was the supply of meat sufficient to meet dietary needs?  Was it distributed evenly across neighborhoods?  Did the public market system “sustain the public good of citizens’ access to food”?

Chapter 3 discusses the seasonal, weekly, and daily patterns of food shopping in a world where fresh meat was demanded year round, but fresh produce was only available in season.  Baics’ analysis is based on two series of household accounts and two sets of public market returns.  He notes public markets typically forbade trade to go past midday to reduce putrefaction and enacted high penalties for selling what market inspectors considered “unwholesome provisions,” among other regulations.  Even so, the market was considered “through” by 10AM.  After that, the poor appeared looking for bargains.  By noon, street peddlers purchased what was left and resold it to the poor, an activity approved by market law.  Chapter 4 presents a case study of the Catharine Market.  That multiple sellers of various types of goods could be found cheek-by-jowl in the market meant buyers could compare quality as well as price — as could sellers.  One potential extension of Baics’ analysis would be to examine the relationship between Catharine Market, the adjacent ferry terminal, and the farms and farmers across the river.

The final part on the post-dissolution period consists of two chapters.  The analysis in Chapter 5 is analogous to Chapter 2.  Baics’ GIS maps now examine the city’s overall land-use and pattern of commerce in the context of neighborhood access to food.  Parenthetically, the maps in general, and the color ones in particular, are one of the book’s highlights.  Baics finds the public market infrastructure was “weighed down by insufficient investments relative to rapidly growing demand” (p. 166).  On the other hand, “the dispersal of provision shops was determined both by urban growth and changing patterns of land use,” “wealthy uptown areas excluded provision stores,” and “centrally located working-class areas were teeming with groceries, meat shops, and other food vendors” (p. 178).  The chapter also returns to the Catherine Market to find the neighborhood now anchored by the “vibrant” retail trade along Catherine Street.

Chapter 6 is a study of the impact these changes had on what Baics describes as growing income and social inequality in a time of rapid immigration.  He integrates what he finds to be growing inequality in food access with the literature on the health and housing inequalities that customarily frame discussions of antebellum New York City.  He ties a “deteriorating disease environment” and “generally worsening conditions of food access” to a discussion of the antebellum puzzle.  In particular, animal populations did not grow as fast as the city’s population, which had an average annual growth rate just under 5 percent between 1840 and 1860.  Tying this supply constraint to the finding that shops in low-income areas were “selling cheaply, in smaller quantities and at lower quality” (p. 207), Baics’ brief concluding chapter argues, “In a city with ever deeper socioeconomic disparities, the liberalization of food markets propelled a formerly more egalitarian resource to become another structural layer of inequality, much like housing and sanitation” (p. 235).

Feeding Gotham is an important study; it brings an impressive quantity of data to bear on a subject customarily argued qualitatively.  It is a testimony to Baics’ ingenuity that his work generates additional questions.  One suspects that events such as the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal and the city’s emergence as the nation’s financial center helped make the rich richer; its role as the primary hub for immigration helped make the poor poorer.  Baics data in the early period are derived from the markets; he cannot estimate the extent to which the poor patronized public markets versus street peddlers.  What he can say is that the poor who shopped at the market did so later in the shopping day and purchased lower quality goods or they relied on peddlers.  Thus, unequal access became worse after deregulation, but it would be interesting to learn by how much.  Further, there are several counterfactual questions that potentially could be explored.  For example, how much would it have cost to construct an ever-expanding system of public markets?  What effect would such a system have had on food prices and taxes?  Would New Yorkers have been better off had more of their taxes been spent on food regulation rather than, say, water supply and road construction?  One hopes Feeding Gotham motivates Baics to continue his research on this important topic; its relevance to the issue of “food justice” is evident.

Louis Cain is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Loyola University Chicago.  He is a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of American Economic History (forthcoming).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Historical Geography
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century