“Potatoes, five full Pounds
a Penny, Potatoes.” 1
By: Paul Dickfoss, 3rd NY, Reg’t
If you were to grow your own potatoes as suggested by the article “A New Sort of Potato.”2 and bring them to an event, one interesting way to interact with the public would be as a potato monger. This impression would provide a reenactor interaction with the public by interpreting types of food sold, cooking and gardening.
Although it is questionable whether some items were sold in military camps, there is no question whether fresh food was sold. Private Döhla, a Hessian, repeatedly talks in his Diary about how soldiers supplemented their meager rations by purchasing fresh food out of their own money.
For example on July 13, 1781 Döhla says, “We had no shortage of provisions here at New Portsmouth because the inhabitants brought them, mostly fresh and plentiful, into the camp.”3
The earliest crier selling potatoes I know of was published sometime in the first half of the 18th century in London (Figure 1). A cheap woodcut of a woman selling potatoes from a basket on her head is found along with a rhyme published in 1775 London (Figure 2). The poem reads,
Pottatoes are a dainty treat,
The Connaught men among,
Who little else can get to eat,
For many a twelvemonth long.
The Cheshire men devour with glee,
Pottatoes and sower milk;
The one goes down like beef, d'ye see,
The other soft as silk.
In 1808 the first printing of The Cries of New-York was published.
Among the illustrations is a man pushing a wheelbarrow (Figure 3) crying “Fine Potatoes.” Within the text is the following about the potato:
The potato is a very valuable article of food for man and beast. It is easy raised; is cheap, wholesome, and palatable. They are produced in many parts of the world. The best come from Ireland and Nova Scotia.
Potatoes are raised in great abundance in the western part of the state of Connecticut; at Horse-Neck, Stamford, &c. about 30, or 40 miles from New-York, from whence they are brought by sloop-loads to market.
They commonly sell from twenty-five to fifty cents per bushel.
This valuable root is said to be a native of America, and was first carried into Europe, by Sir Walter Raleigh, about the middle of the sixteenth century.
Many changes occurred in the 25 years between the end of the war for independence
and 1808. But it is most likely the American potato industry had its roots in the
late 18th century to become so wide spread by 1808.
At events the most memorable things for the public are the sights and sounds. A person selling potatoes would not make much money, but it is the interpretation of how potatoes were grown and sold on the streets and creating the sights and sounds of the late 18th century that add to the atmosphere at our events.
2) Tully, Mark, 1999, “A New Sort of Potatoe.”; in the NWTA Spy, Summer, Vol. III, p. 10.
3) Burgoyne, B.E., 1990, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution By Johann Conrad Döhla; University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 276 p.
4) Kirkin, I, published before 1757 probably later than 1700, Cries of London, Printed in London at St. Paul’s Church Yard. Held at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Call #, GT 3450 .C92 835 K54.
5) Newbery, F., 1775, The Cries of London, as They are daily exhibited in the Streets; in The Cries of London / The Cries of New York, by Linda F. Lapides, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1977. See pages 118 and 119 of The Cries of London.
6) Wood, S., 1808, The Cries of New-York; in The Cries of London / The Cries of New York, by Linda F. Lapides, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1977. See pages 18 and 19 of The Cries of New-York.