Eastern State Series: What 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.]

For the most part, Eastern State Penitentiary inmates in the 19th century took their meals in their cells. Food was brought to them on a cart with leather-covered wheels so its progress down the long, high-ceilinged cell blocks would be muffled; it was pushed through a rectangular opening in the wall or cell door to minimize contact. Inmates were not required to eat their meals upon receiving them, but they might not get the next meal’s serving if their mess kit were not empty and clean when it arrived. No outside food was permitted.

There was a kitchen and a bakery on premises. These were staffed by outside workers and, at least at certain points in time, by female inmates. Eastern State housed female inmates from its first years of operation until 1923, when women were transferred to a single-sex facility upstate. The women were all kept in cell block 2 and were ostensibly subject to the same regulations as male inmates, which meant remaining in an isolated cell or exercise yard at all times, and performing a designated trade (such as chair-caning or wool-dying) during the daylight hours. Group labor like cooking or building maintenance was supposed to be performed by outside workers. However, an investigation as early as 1834 (about a decade after opening) found that this rule was not followed to the letter.

Provisions for the kitchen and bakery were purchased from grocery stores and food markets, not contracted to a single provider (such as Aramark in the present day). Hired workers and visitors who sampled the food prepared for inmates generally reported it to be wholesome and good. Servings were as follows:

Breakfast usually consisted of a pint of coffee, cocoa, or green tea, although the Prison Society visiting committee reported a beverage of hot water and milk and a mix of bread and Indian mush (corn meal) served as the first meal. Dinner, served at midday, was the primary meal. It consisted of either 1/4 pound of boiled beef “without bone” or 1/2 pound of pork, a pint of soup, and an unlimited amount of molasses, and sometimes sauerkraut made of turnips or cabbage, with tea as the beverage. Salt was provided on request and vinegar “as a favor.” Generally a pound of wheat or rye bread a day was divided among the three meals (Johnston).

Variations on the menu could be prescribed for medical or disciplinary purposes: there are records of a doctor prescribing a “milk diet” to sick inmates, and it was not uncommon for meat or the midday meal to be denied to inmates who tried to communicate, sing, or whistle in the silent penitentiary. Food was and continues to be deeply entwined with prison punishment and motivation.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the menu became more diverse and included beans, cabbage, or pickles along with the meat and meal, but in general the American diet of the era did not include many vegetables. However, inmates could supplement their diets with fruits and vegetables grown in their exercise yards, if they were lucky enough to have one adjacent to the cell. (Even just ten years in, overcrowding necessitated the addition of a second level to some of the cell blocks; cells on the first floor had less light, and on the second floor they made do without a yard.) Inmates might receive seed packets from merchants on the outside and grow produce and flowers in their 8′ x 18′ yards. Such embellishments were, like acquiring vinegar as a seasoning, considered a favor.

Speaking of favors leads us to Mrs. Blundin.

In 1834-5, an investigation of the Penitentiary revealed a number of growing concerns over severe disciplinary measures and mismanagement of penitentiary provisions and funds. A great deal of the latter concerns centered around Mrs. Blundin, the wife of an overseer. Mrs. Blundin’s role in the Penitentiary was somewhat vague: transcripts of the hearing show that Mr. Blundin was hired with the expectation that he would live on-site with his wife, and that his wife would take on certain duties such as providing breakfast to employees and assisting in the care of female inmates, but those duties were unofficial and poorly defined. Indeed, much of the negative testimony in this investigation suggested that Mrs. Blundin was stepping out of line in taking on overseer-like duties. Even less favorable testimony suggested that she participated in and encouraged misconduct such as drinking and swearing. We know that she hosted gatherings billed as “quilting frolics” in Penitentiary accounts; as to the nature of these frolics, some witnesses testified that they were entirely respectable people having respectable dinners, but others claimed that the parties went on late at night and featured excessive drinking. Some accounts reported that the parties were assisted by unmasked male and female inmates. At least one witness claimed that Mrs. Blundin carried eggs, roast beef, ham, apple butter, and preserves to an inmate’s cell, which would suggest an even more grievous exploitation. Grocers and bakers were interviewed and reported nothing unusual about Mrs. Blundin’s buying habits; other reported suggested that she misappropriated Penitentiary property, some even claiming to have witnessed Mrs. Blundin carrying prison provisions out through the front gate.

It’s not at all clear to me whether these allegations were true: many of the interviewees recorded in McElwee’s Concise History deny knowledge of any misconduct on Mrs. Blundin’s part, and in any case she and her husband were no longer employed by the Penitentiary by the time the hearings concluded, so no action was taken against them. It’s possible that they and she in particular made convenient scapegoats for the more general operational issues the investigators wished to address, namely discipline and supply management. But whether or not Mrs. Blundin herself actually embezzled Penitentiary provisions, exploited inmates for sex and labor, and openly flouted the principles of solitude and gravity so vital to the Penitentiary vision, it’s clear that Penitentiary supporters vividly feared such abuses of the system they created. The level of detail in stories about Mrs. Blundin suggest that these fears were at least plausible.


To close, I don’t have a particularly relevant photographic illustration for this post, so instead I will end with this charming 19th century dessert plate which depicts the Penitentiary walls in the days when the surrounding area was farmland instead of Fairmount Avenue. For those of you not acquainted with the building, it still looks very much like this: castellated towers, 30-foot stone walls punctuated with fortress-style windows which don’t actually penetrate all the way through the 8-foot-thick walls. Just as the separate system was designed to be a civilized and civilizing response to crime, the edifice itself was designed to intimidate would-be criminals and inspire civic feeling. That its image appears on a dessert plate (for serving! and eating!) might illustrate how the Penitentiary captured public imagination in its early days: although few other American prisons adopted the solitary confinement system, the whole world was watching to see whether or not the experiment would succeed.

 Zoom Dessert Plate: "Penitentiary, Philadelphia." Via the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Dessert Plate: “Penitentiary, Philadelphia.” Via the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Unfortunately that is not a question that can be answered, since there was no formal system of tracking inmates after their release. Instead we have anecdotes–this one went on to pursue gainful employment, that one was convicted again and sent back to Eastern State or to another prison–and records of the ongoing legal and financial struggles that made it impossible for the Penitentiary to operate according to its original principles.

Cassidy, Michael John. Warden Cassidy on Prisons and Convicts: Remarks from Observation and Experience Gained during Thirty-seven Years’ Continuous Service in the Administration of the Eastern State Penitentiary, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Patterson and White, 1897. Google Books.
Johnston, Norman; Finkel, Kenneth; Cohen, Jeffrey A. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994. Print.
McElwee, Thomas B. A Concise History of the Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, Together with a Detailed Statement of the Proceedings of the Committee, Appointed by the Legislature, December 6th, 1984. Philadelphia: Neall and Massey, 1835. Google Books.

How 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: What inmates ate in the 19th Century

  1. Pingback: Eastern State Series: How 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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