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Reviewed by:
  • Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America
  • David Grimsted
Helen Tangires. Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xiii + 263 pp. ISBN 0-8018-7133-6, $45.00 (cloth).

Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America explores and extols the role of municipally owned markets in supplying food to the nation's urban centers. Helen Tangires draws data and examples from around the country, but New York and Philadelphia provide her core case studies. Tangires traces her interest in public markets to childhood experiences with a family lunch wagon in Baltimore, which doubtless contributes to the enthusiastic warmth she brings to this study. It may also encourage some sentimentality in describing what she sees as a "moral economy" ideology that supported municipal markets in their mostly losing battle with what Tangires deems the socially irresponsible forces of laissez-faire.

Tangires cites the work of E. P. Thompson, James Henretta, and Charles Sellers as sources for her idea of a moral economy, but she applies the term to a different world. These authors use the idea to describe a precapitalist time of "semisubsistence" rural folks bound to a system of barter, kin, and community. Tangires's large urban markets involve money transactions where no one doubts the capitalist "market" was firmly entrenched. Yet her use of "moral economy" is appropriate to municipal markets that represented governmental [End Page 529] activism to provide a fair, safe, and readily available food supply for burgeoning urban populations.

Tangires's use of "moral economy" retains much of the aura of nostalgic decency that clings to the term. She claims that public markets "built on consensus, embodies everyone's desire for a fair place—a common ground—to earn a decent living and to procure life's daily necessities" (p. 25). Yet much of Tangires's data involves intense arguments among politicians, established and would-be stall-holders, farmers and hucksters on the edges, private shop owners, and consumers about what was "fair," with each definition of the public good integrated to concern with personal advantage. Consensus among these groups seldom lasted long.

Tangires points out several ways these urban markets oiled good food distribution. In big cities a market manager was responsible for cleanliness, fair weights, and quality control. Such services were provided along with substantial profits to cities. New York City made a 10 percent annual gain on its investments in the years before 1840, and Boston authorities calculated in 1876 an 8 percent annual profit, after deducting investment and expenses, during Faneuil Hall's last half century. In 1888 a financially strapped Mobile, Alabama, restored its municipal market to raise city funds.

The controversy over the Mobile decision suggests the ambiguities in these markets' moral economy. To rent its stalls profitably, Mobile prohibited private shops from selling food near the market, a regulation that forced several butchers and grocers to close or move. Public markets always involved such competing interests. Stallholders often disliked hawkers or farm wagons that competed nearby, so cities sometimes restricted these marginal entrepreneurs. Adam Smith's market, not law, determined the price of food, but stallholders resented it when cities wanted to set up an auction system for stalls to increase municipal revenues. Nor did they welcome newcomers, who disturbed their advantages from limited competition in an expanding market. Tangires notes that in New York City by the 1830s, commitment developed "to maximize revenues rather than to provide satisfactory and economical public facilities," but her evidence suggests that at all times interest in maximizing revenues competed vigorously with the public good (p. 75). Politicians also took their cut from bribery. When patronage machines waxed strong, market regulation and upkeep often waned.

Tangires traces differing movements toward "deregulation" in New York City and Philadelphia. In the latter, large private markets, better housed, located, and cooled, spread over the city. In New York, because its public markets were in the lower city, small shops increasingly dotted other areas. New York's "radical" Democrats [End Page 530] promoted a laissez-faire system, but public and consumer preference seemed to fuel the change. Neighborhood shopping was a convenience...


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