Re-creating the Williamsburg Market House
by Carl Lounsbury
Archaeologists from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation studied the site of Williamsburg's Market House, which is located just east of the Magazine.
The British Museum
The British Museum
Markets became shopping emporiums with a variety of goods and sellers hawking their wares.
Williamsburg's Market House bell was cast in east London at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which has been in business since 1570. Made of bell metal, a bronze alloy, the Williamsburg Market House bell weighs almost 120 pounds with a diameter of 16.5 inches and a total height of 14.75 inches from the lip to the top of the cannons.
The structural frame of the new Market House was raised in the spring. The work, made possible by a gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr., is expected to be complete in the fall.
Market day for the “country people” started early when the rattling rumble of carts and wagons on the unpaved roads leading to Williamsburg broke the stillness of the predawn hour. Traveling several miles from plantations or farms, some came in vehicles and some walked alongside carrying parcels, baskets, and small tables and stools. They converged on the broad open space in the center of town near the Magazine.
These farmers were joined by resident butchers, bakers and others with goods to sell who set up stands and stalls - some temporary and some more permanent - in the open-sided wooden Market House that stood at one edge of a broad brick pavement. Within a short time, they transformed the area into a shopping emporium with baskets filled with fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs, cheese, herbs and gingerbread.
Fishmongers with barrels of eels, fish, crabs and oysters stood off in one corner where the smell of their catch would not be overpowering. All these stands were arranged within carefully delineated boundaries.
After unloading their produce, tubs of butter, loaves of bread, sides of beef and other items, the vendors led their horses and carts to nearby stable yards or pushed their wheelbarrows out of the way before they were told to do so by the city officials charged with overseeing the market. The clerk of the market rang the bell that hung in the turret of the Market House, signaling to sellers and customers alike that the market was now open, an echo of which survives today with the clanging of the stock market bell on Wall Street.
The Williamsburg market in the Colonial period was integral to the lives of all its residents for it was the place where they purchased most of the food that they put on their tables. Although some people raised chickens, fattened a pig or two or tended small gardens to supplement their daily diet, their principal commodities could be found for sale only at the regularly scheduled public market. People of all ranks, genders and ages met to do their shopping, as well as catch up on news and gossip. City butchers and bakers were in their rented stalls shaded from the sun by the overhanging eaves of the Market House, country people were at temporary stands on the pavement, and hucksters hawked their goods to housewives, servants, slaves and visitors. In Philadelphia in 1787, the Rev. Manasseh Cutler observed that “the crowds of people seemed like the collection at the last Day of Judgment, for there was every rank and condition in life, from the highest to the lowest, male and female, of every age and every color.” And so it was at Williamsburg´s Market House.
Vendors sold their provisions according to the rules and regulations established by the mayor and aldermen of the city, known as the Common Hall, and enforced by the clerk of the market. The Williamsburg market, like all English and American markets of the period, was intended to provide householders with equitable access at reasonable prices to the “necessities of life,” as they were called. This was a market place governed by the ethos of a “moral economy” rather than an unabated capitalist one. This perspective went hand in hand with the belief that a hungry population was a dangerous one. An echo of that fear appeared during the Revolution when inflation threatened to disrupt the orderly victualling of Williamsburg´s population.
Hence magistrates set the maximum price for basic items such as meat, poultry, cheese, eggs, butter and other goods. Strict market hours and clearly defined market boundaries, with laws, were intended to protect consumers from unscrupulous practices. Sign boards in the Market House posted regulations, prices and market hours. Ideally, the householders of Williamsburg could procure their daily provisions at a single convenient location and choose among several competing vendors. After the clerk rang the bell to signal the end of the market for householders, regulations were relaxed and hucksters and retailers — including such tavern keepers as Henry Wetherburn, who required larger quantities of produce for his customers — were allowed to make purchases for resale at higher prices.
By consolidating market activities, the municipality could better enforce health codes, clean and police the market, and collect revenues. Everything from the maximum price for a pound of beef to the official weight of a bushel of wheat was determined by the court and enforced by the clerk. When disputes between buyers and sellers arose, he examined the disputed goods using weights and measures. Some sellers put lard at the bottom of a firkin of butter or used private scales that were rigged. If discovered, they had their goods seized and sold for the public good and their faulty devices were destroyed. The clerk registered sales and collected a percentage of the transactions so that money entered into public coffers as a sales tax.
This is how the market worked in Williamsburg in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but the building left few traces in the ground or in documents. The task of restoring lost parts of the 18th-century town has always been based on piecing together fragmentary evidence from a variety of sources. Though the marketplace was not included in the original plan of the city, by the 1710s inhabitants recognized the need for one and had laid out a large area for it in the center of town. Williamsburg´s charter of 1722 granted the corporation the right to hold weekly markets and set the rules of its orderly functioning. Even so, it was many decades before a market house was built. It is evident that one existed by the time of the Revolution. A map made in 1781 by a British officer shows its location on the south side of the Duke of Gloucester Street, just east of the courthouse. It was one of four buildings named on the schematic map, which indicates that it was recognizable as a building type and that it was still standing near the end of the war despite the area around the marketplace being ditched and banked to protect the nearby Magazine.
Newspaper references provide the date of its construction and describe something of its early management. On April 22, 1757, The Virginia Gazette contained a brief advertisement announcing that the Common Hall would meet at Henry Wetherburn´s tavern to receive proposals from carpenters to build a market house. The cryptic message says nothing about the form of the building — all of that would be discussed by the building committee with workmen at the tavern - but the wording implied that it would be a wooden structure since it was a call to carpenters and not contractors or bricklayers capable of erecting masonry structures. Built sometime thereafter, by 1768 the market had drawn the ire of the pseudononymous “Timothy Telltruth,” who complained that it was poorly managed and filled with exorbitantly priced butchers´ meat that was left hanging in the sun for hours and underweight loaves of bread made with unwholesome ingredients. Why couldn´t the Williamsburg market, mused Telltruth, be run more efficiently for the benefit of the town´s inhabitants like the well-regulated market in Norfolk?
The destruction of the minute books of the Common Hall during the Civil War meant the loss of more detailed information about the construction, repair and regulation of the market. The Market House survived the Revolution but disappeared sometime thereafter. By 1796, the market had moved to the old Magazine where it remained before a new 40-by-60-foot market house was built in front of it in the early 1830s.
Colonial Williamsburg´s archaeologists uncovered the location of the 18th-century Market House and market-place. They located the foundations of three buildings depicted on the “Frenchman´s map” of the early 1780s just to the east of the recognizable form of the octagonal Magazine. None is marked, but they had long assumed that one of them was The Market House. The other two were unknown, though a good candidate for one of them was a guard house, erected during the French and Indian War to help protect the arms and munitions in the Magazine. That building had become redundant by 1770 and there was some talk of converting the building into additional market space. Another smaller building may have been a scale house, a place for the storage of weights and measures or some other public purpose.
The site´s archaeology was difficult because it had been compromised by the construction of the Williamsburg Baptist Church in the mid 1850s over the place where the Frenchman´s map indicated the Market House was probably located. The church had a cellar, which obliterated evidence of earlier buildings. After the church was pulled down in 1934, the entire area east of the Magazine was excavated, revealing fragments of additional buildings, including the foundations of the 1830s Market House, though fragments were not recognized as such by the excavators at the time. This earlier archaeology failed to provide unambiguous proof of the Market House´s location or even turn up such identifiable artifacts as butchered bones.
Despite the unpromising results from the 1930s, archaeologists returned to the site in 2013 and systematically opened large squares in the search for the elusive Market House. They did not find the foundations of the building because of the church´s heavy footprint. But they did discover an area that was surrounded by two ditches that had been dug in 1775 by workmen attempting to protect the Magazine and the area around it at beginning of the Revolution. They also discovered a layer of river sand that had been imported to cover a broad area that ran north from the Market House site to the street.
The ditches cut through the sand layer, indicating that the sand had been deposited before 1775. Brick particles in the sand proved this material served as a bed for brick paving, a typical method employed for laying brick surfaces for work yards, cellars and sidewalks in this region. The brick paving placed on top of the sand defined the market area and provided a surface that could be swept clean after each market day. Despite many disturbances to the site, the archaeologists had nonetheless discovered a large rectangular area that defined the limits of the marketplace and the approximate location and size of the Market House.
In developing the design for the Market House, Colonial Williamsburg´s architectural historians turned to the records of such cities as Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Annapolis, along with larger ones, including London, New York, Philadelphia and Boston to discover patterns common to this type of building and learn more about the stalls and associated fittings. This evidence identified common forms and patterns specific to market houses as well as the arrangements and activities associated with market days. The precedents found in contemporary specifications, images and surviving buildings informed the layout of the stalls, spacing of the posts, placement of the bell turret and other details. Newspapers, borough records and visitors´ accounts described how the market operated from the arrangement of temporary stands to the use of weights and measures.
Historians supplemented this with information gained from recording the plans, finishes and details of several dozen standing structures in England and America. They made an inventory of many features, catalogued surviving fittings and measured details from rare survivors including a 1734 bench inside the market house in Pontefract, West Yorkshire.
The Market House design is an amalgam of patterns associated with this type of building. Certain features such as the raised market floor, paved area around the building, stout columns supporting deep eaves and central bell turret are common features in 18th-century Britain and her American colonies. The building is also a reflection of its time and place. The use of local materials and construction methods for the roof carpentry, weatherboards in the gables and brick paving pattern tie the Market House to Williamsburg and the surrounding Tidewater region. And the bell was cast at the White Chapel Foundry, the same east London firm that probably manufactured the 1761 bell that hangs in the Bruton Church tower.