Sunday, August 23, 2015

John Hancock's Table: Turtles, Pineapples and the Paradoxical Politics of 1768

You will always find items both useful and intriguing at the Massachusetts Historical Society ( One tasty tidbit, from the Hancock family papers, is a bill of sale dated 27 June 1768, from Oliver Wendell of Boston to John Hancock. It is bill for six turtles (a weight of 234 pounds) and eighteen pineapples. The total bill came to 16 pounds, 19 shillings. Such exotic fare was shipped from the West Indies and sold (usually dockside) to inns and tavern keepers and representatives of wealthy clientele in Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and so on.  

Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Hancock Family Papers

During the late 18th century & into the 19th,  Mr. Julien promoted the many benefits of turtle soup to his Boston clientele.
These were heady days for Hancock, caught up in the events that would lead ultimately to the Revolution and independence from Great Britain.  By the late spring of 1768 (with the Lydia/Liberty incidents unfolding), Hancock was allied with Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty in organizing resistance to the new taxes imposed on America in the infamous Townshend Duties.  In May, he had been elected to Governor Francis Bernard’s Council, the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature, only to have the people’s choice vetoed by Bernard.  Still, that same day, voters elected him to the House of Representatives.  Two weeks later, he would be elected Major of the Cadets, a new branch of the Massachusetts militia.

Such honors required a gentleman of Hancock’s station to demonstrate his gratitude through celebratory banquets and fetes.  That Hancock was planning festivities at this time of some sort is evident in Oliver Wendell’s bill for exotic fare, especially as the bill appears to several imposing sea turtles, no doubt to be served as a delicacy - turtle soup . Pineapples too had been long associated as luxury items and their appearance at Hancock's table would have heightened the sense of it being a significant celebration. Hancock's uncle, Thomas, had died by this time, leaving the 'Hancock Mansion' to his nephew-- a perfect place for entertaining with his Aunt Lydia as hostess.

For further reading:
Two excellent articles - and everything you could want to know about turtle and mock turtle soup from the University of Pennsylvania Museum:

and Uncovering Hidden Lives: 18th Century Black Mariners:

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