What Were the Market Days Like in Colonial America?

Dateline: Philadelphia, 1693. It is a sure thing that the regulations in this major town reflect how life was back then, up and down the eastern seaboard. Let’s read between the lines and listen in. Primary source, great for teachers and students.

One can tell what daily life was like by these regulations, if you know how to look.

A record dated 5 June 1694 says Robert Brett was the Clerk of the Market. People complained against him, saying he misbehaved himself. The Lt. Governor dismissed him. It is probable that he was the clerk in 1693.

William Markham, Esq., Lieutenant Governor

Andrew Robeson, Robert Turner, John Cann, Wm. Salway, Lacey Cock (Swedish interpreter between English and Indians), all esquires.

1 Oct 1693

Transcription begins:

Regulations of Market

It was on this day by the Lt. Governor, with the advice of the Council, agreed, Viz.

1. That the place for the market be in the High Street, where the Second Street crosses it, and in no other place.

2. That the Market be kept there two days in the week, weekly, viz. Wednesdays and Saturday.

3. That all sorts of provisions brought to this town for sale, viz. flesh, fish, foul, butter, eggs, cheese, herbs, fruits, and roots, etc. be sold in the aforesaid marketplace;

And in case any of the aforesaid provisions should come to the town of Philadelphia on the other day that are not Market days, yet that they be sold in the market, under the same circumstance, regulations and forfeitures as upon the days on which the market is appointed;

And in case any of the said provisions be exposed [exhibited] to sale in any other place in the town than the said market, they shall be forfeited, the one half to the poor of Philadelphia, the other half to the Clerk of the Market.

4. That the market begin and be opened at the ringing of the bell, which shall be rung from the first day of the 2nd Monday April, to the first day of September, between the hours of six and seven, and from the first day of September to the first day of April, between the hours of eight and nine, and in case any of the aforesaid provisions or any sort of marketing be sold (flesh excepted) before the ringing of the bell, unless it be for his Excellency the Governor Chief, or Lt. Governor, the same shall be forfeited, one half to the poor, the other half to the Clerk of the Market.

5. That no person cheapen or buy any of the aforementioned provisions by the way as it comes to the Market, upon forfeiture of the same, besides the forfeiture of six shillings, both to the buyer and seller, one half to the poor, the other half to the Clerk of the Market.

6. That no hucksters—or persons that all again—shall buy or cheapen any of the aforementioned provisions until it has been two hours in the Market after the ringing of bell, upon forfeiture of the same and six shillings, one half to the poor, the other half to the Clerk of the Market.

7. That the Clerk of the Market shall and may receive for all cattle killed for the market, six pence a head; for every sheep, calf or lamb, two pence per head; for every hog or shoat brought to Market or cut out for sale there, three pence; and that nothing shall be paid for what the country people bring to town [al]ready killed.

8. That the Clerk of Market shall and may receive for sealing of weights and measures one penny for each, great and small.

Lastly, that all persons concerned shall duly pay to the Clerk of the Market the several rates, fees and forfeitures aforesaid, and that he shall from time to time deliver to the overseers of the poor their parts thereof;

And that all justices of the peace, sheriffs, constables and other officers be aiding and assisting him in the execution of his office.

Given at Philadelphia, the first day of October, 1693.

Transcription ends.

Questions and Observations

So it looks like the clerk, which the original spelled “clark,” was the rooster of the roost. He got some money for his troubles. Sheriffs and constables and others were supposed to assist him. Did they get a cut?

Are there too many rules, or were things simpler than they are today?

Why only on those days and not every day, if doing so helped business?

In article three, I like the listed food. It gives me a good idea what they ate. Were potatoes included in the “roots” category?

In the fourth article, why was flesh excepted? Spoiled easily?

Ringing the bell, probably in a church, was important back then and for many decades afterwards.

In the seventh article, hucksters took advantage of the circumstances and excitement. The clerk had to be on his guard.

In the seventh article, it looks as though people slaughtered their animals away from the market and brought in the flesh on a wagon or something. Did they slaughter some of them at the marketplace?

Overall impression: Things looked a little messy. Hogs oinked, cattle mooed, sheep bleated. Regulations had to be applied. One can easily imagine children running around having fun, playing tag and hide and go seek. Maybe the younger ones got lost. Summer dust settled on the flesh. Sanitation was low. Still, people must have had fun and maybe earned a little money.


Drunk and Disorderly in Colonial Philadelphia

How to Do Business in Virginia Colony


Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), pp. 391-92 and 444.

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