Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 19th Century

[This October, I am giving nighttime tours at Eastern State Penitentiary. Inspired by the rich and fascinating history of this abandoned prison, I have used approved sources to compile a short series of posts about food practices in the Penitentiary. If you are interested in taking a tour at night, sign up for a VIP Terror Behind the Walls experience. Daytime tours and discussions of this remarkable institution are also available.]

Before jumping into descriptions of food carts with leather-covered wheels and so forth, it is necessary to explain a little about the design and principles of the Penitentiary.

Commissioned in 1821, Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first prisons in the United States; it is certainly the oldest such institution still standing, although it has not been used as a prison since 1971. While imprisonment was an established practice in Europe and the early American republic, it wasn’t as frequently sentenced as it is today; fines or corporal punishments were more common rulings. Jails, such as they were, made little or no provision for prisoner health or cleanliness; they were frequently unsanitary and unsafe. Access to food, clothing, and other necessities was unregulated and often unequal, obviously favoring inmates or greater wealth or influence. Pickpocketing, gambling, and other shenanigans were not uncommon. The Walnut Street Jail, Philadelphia’s primary prison prior to Eastern State, had a bar maintained by the warden, who sold liquor to prisoners at a substantial markup.

A group of concerned citizens (with the evocative appellation Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons) lobbied the state of Pennsylvania to construct an institution that would separate inmates apart from each other as well as from society. Inspired by the extensive reports of an Englishman named John Howard, who surveyed diet and living conditions in prisons across Europe and Great Britain, the Penitentiary intended to provide inmates with regular meals, exercise, clothing, sanitation, and nearly complete solitude.

So Eastern State penitentiary was built on a hub-and-spoke plan: originally, seven wings of one-person cells extended from a central chamber that permitted a clear view down each corridor. Each cell was furnished with a bed, a cold water tap, a toilet that sort of flushed (though the technology was very new in 1822), and a small outdoor yard for exercise.

In the beginning, the Penitentiary board insisted that the inmates be kept in near-complete isolation and silence. Prisoners were not to speak except to the warden and perhaps to a spiritual adviser, if available. When taken to or from their cells, their faces were covered with black masks which served to prevent them from surveying the surroundings but also kept their identity a secret from visitors and other inmates. Guards wore wool socks over their shoes to muffle the sound of their footfalls; supply carts had leather-covered wheels for the same reason. Visitors to the penitentiary (and there were many! It was a popular tourist attraction) often commented on the preternatural silence of the place.

The principle of isolation and silence was somewhat challenged by program of providing inmates three meals a day. At first, cell blocks were designed so that cells could be entered only through their exercise yards; thus, the inner wall of the cell along the block corridor was outfitted with a rectangular slot through which food or other materials could be passed.  But this design was abandoned about ten years into construction, and subsequent cell blocks were built with doors along the inner corridor. Each cell had a heavy oak door and a second iron lattice door with a small rectangular opening taking the place of the original food slots. A few still exist along Cell Block 3 in the now-deteriorated building.

“Interior view, cell block three, hospital block, original feeding hole” by Jack E. Boucher, 1998. Via Library of Congress.

As a deteriorated component of a stabilized ruin, that food slot looks pretty dismal. But such slots have a long history of use in monasteries, which allowed monks under orders of silence or who were isolated as  a disciplinary measure to receive meals without human contact. But these austere rectangles underline how entwined mealtimes are with sociality; that is, feeding humans in isolation requires special engineering and design.


Rectangular opening in an iron lattice cell door. Photo by author, 2007.

As it will become clear in the following post, maintaining silence and isolation was a constant struggle, complicated by erring wardens, overcrowding, and simple human desire to communicate. As you might guess from the pair of bed frames in the abandoned cell in the above photograph, the separate system eventually gave way to sharing cells and other spaces. But for the first century or so of its operation, the Penitentiary intended to feed and house its inmates in quasi-monastic quarters in order to encourage rehabilitation.

Johnston, Norman; Finkel, Kenneth; Cohen, Jeffrey A. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994.

What inmates ate in the 19th century
How inmates ate in the 20th century
What inmates ate in the 20th century

4 responses to “Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 19th Century

  1. Pingback: Eastern State Series: What inmates ate in the 19th Century | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 20th Century | Scenes of Eating·

  3. Pingback: Eastern State Series: What inmates ate in the 20th Century | Scenes of Eating·

  4. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: the reasoning for the seasoning | Scenes of Eating·

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