“We yesterday gave eleven pence for two cucumbers”

REBECCA STODDERT wrote again to her niece Eliza on June 7, 1799 about the threat of a yellow fever epidemic and the difficulty of obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables in Philadelphia.

I imagine by the time you receive this you will have heard very exaggerated accounts of the yellow fever, which certainly exists at this time in Philadelphia, but is not so bad, as yet, to give me the least uneasiness. Mr. Stoddert’s office [her husband Benjamin is John Adams’s secretary of the navy] is very near the house we live in, which is at a considerable distance from the part of the city where the fever prevails. The children are taken from school; indeed I believe the schools are very generally broke up till autumn. As soon as it is improper to remain here we will go to Trenton, where Mr. Stoddert has engaged a house, so I think we are safe from this dreadful, melancholy calamity. . . .

I very often put myself in mind of the Prodigal Son, and think how glad I should be of the fruit that is left at our table when the family are done with it. I have had strawberries twice, only, and I think paid half a crown a quart, with the stems on. Raspberries were a quarter of a dollar a quart, and so bad that they made me very sick. As for cherries, I have eaten them once green. It is unlucky that I should want fruit this summer,—for the first time in my life, I believe. However, next summer will make amends for all my wants. We yesterday gave eleven pence for two cucumbers, and till within a few days that has been the price of one only. Cherries are sold by the pound; so are potatoes when they first come. When we bought first, the price was a five-penny bit. What it was when they were first brought to market I cannot say, but probably higher than that. In short, living here is dear beyond anything I could have supposed, and we buy everything we make use of except water. . . .

Kate Mason Rowland, “Philadelphia a Century Ago, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1898, page 812-13. The view of Philadelphia in 1799 showing Christ Church, at which Mrs. Stoddert attended a service mentioned in an earlier post, is a photograph of a color engraving made by William Russell Birch (1755-1834).

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