Skip to main content
eScholarship
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Just Provisions: Food, Identity, and Contested Space in Urban America, 1800-1875

  • Author(s): Branch, Michelle
  • Advisor(s): Henkin, David M.
  • et al.
Abstract

In nineteenth-century cities, men and women, black and white, rich and poor, engaged with the urban food system in ways that extended beyond the primary purpose of consumption and distribution. How and to what extent did food provisioning spaces advance beyond a utilitarian goal to feed urban populations to become sites for imagining, expressing, and achieving social aims? What cultural histories of alimentary spaces can be told during antebellum America's dramatic turn toward urban life? "Just Provisions" seeks to explore answers to those questions by investigating antebellum food provisioning and its politics of identity and space.

Urban residents challenged the existing provisioning structure to create a food marketing system they considered more inclusive, fair, and representative--in a word, more just. In so doing, they transformed not only the food markets, but also related food systems and institutions: street vending, eating-house establishments, restaurants, and Northern market procurement practices. In questioning the existing structure, they further inserted themselves into the urban public discourse on the place of blacks, women, and immigrants in the new republic. As they lobbied for legitimate inclusion in public space, residents sought to disrupt the codes and patterns of the traditional marketing system. If food markets regulated social life according to one vision of an ordered society, alternative food spaces offered competing perspectives and different opportunities to envision public life. In considering forms of marketing beyond official markets, "Just Provisions" seeks to create histories of street vending and free produce markets, and to extend scholarship about public food markets and restaurant culture--and the people who frequented those spaces.

Simply put, residents looked to markets for not only nutritional, but social needs. To view the antebellum urban food provisioning system from a broader perspective that looks beyond the official markets is to observe that food provisioning was more than simply an efficient means to feed the masses. Food provisioning also touched social justice values. Markets not only provided sustenance, but also the potential for sociability and a respectable path into public space and public discourse--especially for blacks, women, and immigrants. For that reason, members of these groups pushed for changes to the restrictive public markets while simultaneously enacting change in other food provisioning landscapes that promised better opportunity. Significant numbers of antebellum residents longed for better economic chances, greater respectability, more freedom of movement, and a food system that matched their ethical values. They pursued these desires in the market house, but also in the streets, eating houses and restaurants, and alternative market systems that existed in the shadow of the official market houses themselves.

"Just Provisions" proceeds by looking at four different types of food spaces in cities. Its chapters consider broader definitions and alternative propositions to the market-house structure. Adding research about street vending, eating houses, and free produce markets to research about marketing infrastructure can illuminate further contours to the politics of identity and space shaped by food. Likewise, interrogating the definitions of the market as a traditional institution provides a glimpse into another dimension of urban public life, not only about the spaces themselves, but also about relationships and activities that occurred there. The cases explored here show urban residents pushing at the boundaries of the market model, seeking to create a more fair, inclusive, and just provisioning system. They argued that to be truly inclusive, the market model required modifications across multiple dimensions. In the process, blacks, women, immigrants, and members of the lower classes offered a different perspective on what full civic inclusion could look like.

Main Content
Current View