Goats Gone Wild: Navigating the Food Supply in Colonial Boston
Updated: Oct 18
In the bustling streets of Colonial Boston, where dreams of independence simmered alongside fragrant Bohea tea, an unexpected menace lurked. As the city's residents toiled to build a new nation, a group of four-legged culprits quietly orchestrated their own campaign of culinary chaos. These mischievous creatures, often underestimated in their capacity for destruction, were none other than goats - unassuming in appearance but notorious for their voracious appetite and their untamed, disruptive role in the city's delicate food ecosystem.
While researching my short story Major Deception, I need to learn a bit about the food supply in Colonial Boston and I was fascinated by this detail. In this blog I hope to share with you what I learned—not just about how these seemingly harmless animals disrupted Colonial Boston's food supply, but of all the other food related details I could find about of how Bostonians lived and ate.
I admit this research was a little difficult. As with most labor performed by women, I struggled to find sources that outline how Bostonians procured food. Most chroniclers, diarists, and letter writers apparently found such everyday matters as going to the market or taking grain to the mill too trivial to record, and the systematic gathering of statistics bearing on food distribution had to await a later era. What we learn about Boston’s food supply as my main character Hannah Turner would have known comes to us from laws—such as banishing goats—and ordinances, official records, and newspaper advertisements.
I discovered early in the research that part of the reason that Boston became increasingly dependent on outside food sources was the rapidly increasing population. In 1640, only ten years after it was settled, Boston’s population of 1,200 outgrew its food resources. Boston was also a center of trade and the center of Massachusetts’s government. This meant large quantities of food passed through the city—and there were often need for more food than just what was needed to feed the permanent population. This got more complicated because farm products were used as legal tender (to pay taxes, for example) during the first city’s first fifty years. Non-perishable products typically arrived by way of water and livestock arrived by land.
Selfishly, I used food insecurity to help build character in Major Deception. One of my characters, Marie Beauharnais, shares the last heel of bread with the main character Hannah. I used this to highlight how deeply the two women were connected. One chooses to go hungry so the other one could eat. So, I had to find out how bakers worked and where the two women would have bought their bread. It’s no surprise that there were many bakers and grain mills in Boston. Boston was saturated with mills and, in fact, as early as the 1650s Boston was so well supplied with grist mills that few of the inhabitants were more than half a mile from one. Taking grain to the mill was part of the household routine and sometimes entrusted to children.
While Marie Beauharnais was from Martinque, Hannah Turner was originally a Londoner. Hannah would have recognized and shared Bostonians distrust in millers—that goes as far back as The Canterbury Tales. In 1636 the General Court “decreed that the miller’s toll could not exceed one-sixteenth of the grain he ground.” Toll milling was very popular (if not ubiquitous) at the time but merchant millers (those who bought grain and then sold the flour) would not become prominent in colonial New England. The 1720s saw the beginning of imported flour and by the latter half of the 1740s small quantities of flour could be bought from bakers or merchants.
I chose bread as the vehicle of character connection between two women living under colonial occupation because the size of bread loaves was under official government control from 1646 to 1797 by means of the assize of bread. Prices and sizes of loaves of bread were standardized and could only change if the price of wheat changed. Only three types of bread – “white, wheaten, and household bread” – were recognized and each type had a different loaf-size - “whatever the size of a penny loaf of white bread, the wheaten loaf generally had to be half again as large and the household loaf twice as large.”. These regulations were taken very seriously to the point that bakers had to identify all loaves with their initials and if a loaf was too light it could be confiscated and if it was too heavy (just to be safe), then the baker would lose some of his profits. The fact that protection of the people and their bread was taken so seriously suggests that people generally did not bake their own bread and thus relied on the bakers (194). This is supported by the fact that many homes lacked a proper oven to bake bread, and the wood needed for the fire was very costly.
Hannah and Marie went without meat. But the revolutionaries in Major Deception, like Jacob, Marie’s pimp, gather at a tavern and enjoy their molasses-smoked bacon. So, I needed to find out about butchers as well. Butchers, like the bakers and millers, were an important part of Bostonian life. Legislation regarding butchers was largely an attempt to increase sanitation. Beginning in 1656 “all butchers were ordered to throw their waste products in the mill creek where the current would carry them off to sea” and “in 1962 Boston, Salem, and Charlestown were instructed to limit slaughterhouses to designated areas” near the water. Ultimately, a combination of wages, taxes, and regulations would drive most butchers out of Boston by 1746. Furthermore, by 1789 not a single butcher was listed in Boston’s directory because they had all moved to the neighboring towns & cities. While the butchers may have been selling fresh meat, salted pork and beef were common staples in the colonial diet.
When I researched bread and meat I also found information about other basic foods I found fascinating. Milk was also important to the diet of colonial Bostonians. Different sources suggest slightly varied amounts of milk consumption, but most sources suggest that milk was consumed every day (perhaps even multiple times a day). Many families kept cows and poorer families kept goats until goats were “banished” for being too destructive in 1642. It was at this point that a milkman was appointed to sell and distribute milk to the poor. Other products such as butter and cheese were also readily available, but rarely accessed by poor families (who had to make their own). The butter and cheese that was sold was of quite poor quality since it took women a long time to work up a surplus of either one. Potentially due to the poor quality of these products, butter and cheese were frequently imported in Boston. Merchants most commonly advertised Irish butter and English Cheshire cheese in the eighteenth century. (Hannah could have heartily recommended cheese from Cheshire!)
All this food had to get to Boston in the 1730’s. Town merchants played a vital role in this increase in trade and product availability. The Boston merchant “delt in textiles, tools, household goods, staple foodstuffs and other groceries, luxuries of many sorts – anything that he could buy and sell”. As a greater number of shops appeared, some more specialized shops materialized as well. In the 1730s and beyond merchants who specialized in grocery products referred to themselves as grocers.
Public food markets, like those in Major Deception were sites of colonial tension and revolutionary fervor. Although there were not many market restrictions in 1734, many Bostonians greatly resented them. After a failed attempt to overturn market rules in 1735, in March of 737 a mob “tore down the market near the town dock and damaged the north market”. Even the establishment of a permanent market in 1742. The new market adhered to similar previsions as the ones before it: “prohibited forestalling, limited the trade of hucksters, forbade the sale of unwholesome meats, and so forth.” Market controversy had largely died down after 1763 but reports show that Bostonians frequently complained about carts littering the streets near the market. This issue remained largely unsolved despite modest legislative efforts.
The food marketing landscape in Colonial Boston was shaped by a set of enduring characteristics and influenced by several socio-economic factors. Let's summarize these key points: Permanent Characteristics of Food Marketing in Boston 1. Direct Sales Emphasis: Authorities in Colonial Boston preferred direct sales from producers to consumers, favoring street vending over markets, which played a more secondary role. This approach aimed to maintain a close connection between those who produced food and those who consumed it. 2. Role of Hucksters: While the presence of hucksters as middlemen was resented by some, their trade was not prohibited, indicating that it fulfilled a specific need in the food supply chain. Hucksters served as intermediaries between producers and consumers. 3. Government Consumer Protection: The government took an active role in consumer protection, particularly concerning staple foods like bread. This included measures to control weights and measures and to ensure the quality of meat, reflecting a commitment to food safety and quality. 4. Lack of Retail Food Shops: Throughout this period, Colonial Boston seemed to lack retail food shops dedicated solely to the sale of indigenous foodstuffs by retailers who were not involved in the food processing. This suggests that food distribution and retailing were interconnected. Socio-Economic Factors Driving Change: 1. Population Growth: The increase in the population of Colonial Boston played a significant role in shaping food marketing practices. A growing population required more efficient and organized food distribution systems to meet the rising demand. 2. Cash Purchasing Power: The transition from barter to cash-based transactions marked an increase in purchasing power among the colonial population. This shift in payment methods likely influenced how food was marketed and sold. 3. Rise in Wage-Earners: The emergence of a wage-earning class also contributed to changes in food marketing. As more people earned wages, their consumption patterns evolved, leading to shifts in the food market and demand for various food products. These permanent characteristics and socio-economic factors provide valuable insights into the complexities of food marketing in Colonial Boston. Through this research I hoped to establish—pardon the pun—the flavor of Hannah Turner’s Boston and role food markets played in rising colonial tensions between Bostonians and British colonial forces.
Read Major Deception a short story published in Wolfsbane: Best New England Crime 2023. Published by Crime Spell Books. Available in December, 2023.
Karen J. Friedmann. “Victualling Colonial Boston.” Agricultural History 47, no. 3 (1973): 189–205.