Raising Williamsburg's Market House


A town’s market house was a bustling hubbub of vendors, shoppers, and business. Colonists from all walks of life mingled on market days: housewives, servants, slaves, and tavern keepers. The market was the heart of the community, and as such, it was tightly regulated and regularly inspected. Architectural Historian Carl Lounsbury introduces the latest reconstruction on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Learn more: Read Where's the Beef? by Carl Lounsbury


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is seeing a construction boom to rival the 1926 reconstruction efforts of John D. Rockefeller and W. A. R. Goodwin. Fresh on the heels of Charlton’s Coffee House and Andersons Armory Complex comes a new project to resurrect the Colonial Market House.

Architectural historian Carl Lounsbury joins us today to talk about the project and the history behind it. Carl, thanks for being back on the show.

Carl: Well its fun, and it’s great to talk to the public about the kind of research that we do. Oftentimes our work begins years and years and years before the actual construction happens or sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. And it’s good to get that word out that what we’re doing is and hopefully they’ll see the fruits of it.

Harmony: Speaking of the fruits of construction just before we started about the topic of the Market House we’ve seen a lot of reconstruction in recent years.

We’ve reconstructed Charlton’s Coffee House, we’ve reconstructed Anderson’s Armory Complex and now we’re looking at reconstructing the Market House. So this must be an exciting time to be an architectural historian and see all of these buildings rise up from the ground again?

Carl: Well sometimes it’s a little scary when you see them rising up because you always query yourself whether or not what you’ve designed is correct. But even so it is fun to see your design work come to fruition like that.

But the Market House is a project that has a deep history here at Colonial Williamsburg. In fact as far back as you’re mentioning in the 1920s and '30s, Dr. Goodwin was very interested in having that reconstructed and for whatever reason that building was not reconstructed at the time.

Harmony: A market house pretty much is what it sounds like. What was the colonial market house? What happened there?

Carl: Well the market house was basically the emporium for the city. This is where the, what in the 18th century were called the necessities of life, were sold to the inhabitants of the city of Williamsburg. Every town, both in colonial America as well as in England and European cities, had a market house or more than one market house.

For example, in New York City there were six or seven, Charleston had three, some were very specialized areas where they sold just meat, others were fruits and vegetables and still others were multipurpose.

In our case, we know that our market was a multipurpose market. It was probably a one-story structure standing slightly above the ground on a brick foundation. It had wooden posts and a roof over it, but was probably open from the sides. It had deep overhangs. It probably had a small bell turret. All these things were there to signal the function of this building, which was to sell produce as well as other items that were brought in.

Harmony: You have very scant evidence about Williamsburg’s market house specifically. So as a researcher when you start to try to pull together evidence of what a reconstruction should look like, what do you go to, to try and find out what this should have looked like, what it would have looked like in the period when you don’t really have a whole lot?

Carl: Obviously archeology is our primary source of information when a building has disappeared. Yet another primary source of information are documents. So we have some evidence from newspapers, the Virginia Gazette, telling us about when it was going to be built, the call for carpenters to submit proposals in 1757.

But we also have people writing into the newspaper complaining about the quality of the market that it was not as well regulated, that certain merchants were charging more than they thought fair, the usual complaints about the high price of food. We also have evidence from other sources.

The one element that we are missing in this unfortunately are the city of Williamsburg’s record books. These were the records kept by the city council and we, unfortunately, that council record book or books was destroyed in 1865 when they were sent three years earlier to Richmond for safe keeping during the Civil War.

And in that record book there would have been very detailed specifications for the construction of that building as well as the regulations that set the fair prices for food by the magistrates as well minutes by the clerk of the market who was charged with overseeing the activities of the market. All of those things would have been in those city record books, which unfortunately disappeared.

We know that because other cities in Virginia have their council records surviving. For example, Fredericksburg and Norfolk. And we can gain a lot of information, sort of analogous information, from those city records of those cities as well as others up and down the eastern seaboard where we have these specifications for these buildings.

For example, we know the Norfolk House built in 1736 was 15 feet by 30 feet and it talks about being raised up on a brick platform and having deep overhangs. The market house built in Annapolis in 1752 was 20 feet by 40 feet. The same sort of specifications for those kinds of details so there is a pattern here that we see from other buildings that this market house was of a type; there’s obviously variations in size.

Some of the buildings may have been partially enclosed with weatherboarded walls and big wide doorways that could be thrown open during market day, but in general they all had these similar characteristics.

We also look at standing buildings that survived to get, again, more detailed information about, for example, the height of the posts and how the big iron spikes were nailed into the post to hold the sides of beef and all these other features that we know existed; the actual size of bell turrets and the general size of bells we’ve gathered from looking at standing structures. All these things we’ve picked out and been able to feed into our design.

Harmony: Why is it important to reconstruct this market house? What story are we going to tell there? What are visitors going to learn there that we haven’t been telling as much of?

Carl: Well the market is essential for any town because it is the place where food was sold. Many people did not have access to meat, vegetables, produce and they had to buy it through a market. And these markets were not freewheeling emporiums as we think of them today where you charge the price that you believe that you can charge to make a nice profit. These prices were set by the city council in an effort to make sure that everyone had access to food.

The last thing in the world that a city wants is a population that’s hungry. This goes back to the Medieval times, even Christian charity which made it imperative that the poor be fed because not that they were given free handouts, but they didn’t want individuals to, what they called “engross,” that is buy up all the produce at one time and then turn around and sell it at exorbitant prices. Because a hungry populace is an angry populace and you want peace within your town.

So instead of having prices just shoot up they set what they called a “fair price” for these foodstuffs; the price of meat, the price of eggs, the price of cheese and butter. All these things are set. You can charge as much as this, you can charge less, but if you charge too much you might be brought before the magistrates and charged with gouging the public. So it was a highly regulated affair.

They were also very concerned about the quality of the food. They didn’t want rancid food being sold, so the clerk of the market would go around and make sure that the beef was not spoiled, that the butter was not rancid and the milk and the rest of these things brought to the market were actually that, you know, sort of, not I wouldn’t call it a Food and Drug Administration approach, but certainly one that was concerned about the quality of the food and they didn’t want a sick populace either.

So they were very concerned about all these elements there. Markets were set up for what they called “householders” first of all. So here in Williamsburg they wanted to make sure that people who ran the household had opportunity to buy fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh eggs, fresh butter before anyone else.

So sometimes they would stipulate only house holders could buy products in the morning when the market was open and only in the afternoon could other people who, for example, tavern keepers who needed to buy lots of food just to produce for their guests were allowed to come into the market to buy whatever was left over; so it is this great concern for the individual householders.

Because of that, the markets became one of the most mixed areas within the town in terms of who was there. You get slaves coming to the market both to buy and to sell produce and other goods. You have small householders there buying things. You have wealthy housewives coming to purchase food. You have artisans coming to buy bread. I mean it’s just an indiscriminate mix of people.

A lot of English prints that we see for example show just how busy and the bustle of the market. So here’s a place in Williamsburg on market day that you have all aspects of colonial society coming together in a way that you can’t see it anywhere else in the town of Williamsburg.

So this is the sort of thing that we would really love to convey to people, our visitors when they come to see this that this was…yes, it was a, like a modern grocery store but it was also…it was a place to chat with your neighbors.

It was a place to do deals, but it was all kind of done within the purview of the magistrates making sure that nothing was done illegally. So much so that they would mark out the boundaries of the market with either posts or pillars or bollards and saying, “You can sell within these boundaries, but not outside the boundaries. If you sell outside the boundaries you’re violating city ordinances, but you have to sell within the boundaries within a certain time frame.”

So it might be from sunup to sundown or from 6 in the morning until noon or in the wintertime it might be until 3:00 in the afternoon. A bell would be rung to signal the opening of the market as well as the closing of the market so as I said it was a very highly regulated chaos.

Harmony: What a wonderful reconstruction this is. Like so many of the buildings in the Historic Area, it lets us tell so many stories from government regulation to the different types of people to the ways that people ate and people socialized. I’m really looking forward to watching this project proceed and we’ll be talking to you in the coming months and years and following the reconstruction of the market house.

Carl: Thanks. It’s been a lot of fun.

Harmony: Thank you Carl.


  1. When the Market House opens will there be artificial sides of meat hanging, artificial fish, vegetables, etc as it would have been when the Market House was at its peak?
    I have been informed it will still be selling the Willimsburg items as does the current structure across from the Courthouse of 1770.
    Is there a scheduled date as to when it will be operational.

    • Ron:
      We are now in the research and design phase of the market house and have not finalized how the building will be interpreted. I do know that we will be moving many of the sales operations that take place now on the west side of the market square to the new building. We will also have an interpretive aspect to the site–perhaps even an electronic fieldtrip. We have not begun to discuss how this will be done–through hanging sides of beef or otherwise. We hope to have the building opened by the spring/summer of 2015.

  2. This is great news. Has the name of the benefactor been made public? As with Forrest Mars, we can all keep buying and eating M&Ms, and other Mars candy products to show ours thanks. So, to whom do we owe our thanks for this reconstruction?

    • Christine:
      Yes, keep eating those M&Ms. Forrest Mars has generously underwritten this latest research project. We are delighted to be able to reconstruct this very important public building on market square and be able to interpret the site.

  3. […] One barrel of the resulting lime is slated to be used for the floor of a slave cabin at Great Hopes. Additional lime will be used at Historic Jamestowne and for the upcoming construction of the Market House. […]

  4. […] One barrel of the resulting lime is slated to be used for the floor of a slave cabin at Great Hopes. Additional lime will be used at Historic Jamestowne and for the upcoming construction of the Market House. […]

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