The Flour Rioters of 1837
Bread, meat, rent and fuel
Ask them about: sourdough starter?
In the pandemic months of 2020, one of the most initially surprising facts of life was the desolation of the supermarket baking aisle, with flour in desperately short supply as we all stress-baked our way through isolation. It isn’t the first time flour availability has been top-line American news, either. New Yorkers were obsessed with rising prices and short supply of flour in 1837, too – and that time, it led to a very contentious, very powdery riot.
In 1837, the “Era of Good Feelings” in American history was decidedly in the rearview mirror, and nowhere was this in sharper relief than in New York City. First off, the city had been hit hard by the great fire of 1835, which burned an area of some twenty-three city blocks and caused the modern equivalent of half a billion dollars in damage. Wheat crops had been through two poor, pest-ridden growing seasons. And after Andrew Jackson declined to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832, banking increasingly shifted to local state banks that felt increasingly free to issue their own notes and take on irresponsible levels of debt, which was easy to do given the big speculation business in timber and Western land.* In 1836, with so many trying to pay for grand plans in borrowed money, Jackson issued an executive order – the “specie circular” – that required gold or silver to buy government land. All these local banks increasingly couldn’t redeem their own notes, and financial crisis seemed imminent.
(*Side note: keep in mind the availability of large swaths of Western land was because Jackson also spent the 1830s being an asshole about forcibly evacuating Native Americans.)
Then you had the Loco-Focos. Sometimes known as the Equal Rights Party, they were a masculine, working class, individualistic, minimal-government Democratic group in New York. The Loco-Focos were hyper-focused on pricing and banking as they impacted working class providers and their families. Bankers play their games, they argued, and we pay for it in rent increases, raised prices and unemployment. (With a side order of anti-immigrant sentiment; the Loco-Focos didn’t want to compete with foreign labor.)
The group was increasingly upset at the rising cost of necessaries: Loco-Focos called a meeting in the city park on February 13, 1837, posting bills that read: “BREAD, MEAT, RENT, AND FUEL! Their prices must come down!” They invited “all friends of humanity determined to resist monopolists and extortioners.” The gathering was well attended despite it being a very cold and windy February afternoon, and party figures spoke to the crowd against the evils of a “monstrous banking system” they considered “oppressors of the poor” and “more dangerous to the liberties of the people than that of a standing army.” Resolutions argued that the unchecked power of banks was unconstitutional; that workers should demand to be paid in hard currency and reject paper money and fictitious finance; and that the American financial system as it then stood needed to be torn up and re-established more fairly, with “a system of direct taxation substituted.”
Though party leader Alexander Ming, Jr. exhorted the gathered crowd to remain peaceful and “do no act which might bring into disrepute the fair fame of a New Yorker, the honor of a citizen of this Republic, or the character of man,” a sizable sub-group of protesters had appeared with different plans. A call of “Hart’s flour store!” was heard from an unknown speaker, and a few hundred people headed towards Eli Hart & Co., a nearby flour merchant rumored to be hoarding flour. The crowd smashed windows, tossed items from upper floors and rolled out barrels until “half the block the street was nearly knee deep with flour and grain.”
Police and the city mayor tried to quell the riot with words and by force, but neither landed: the crowd scared the mayor off, broke police officers’ clubs into matchsticks, and turned an iron door into a battering ram. The street was a thick, cold storm of broken barrel staves, flying icicles, shredded paperwork and grain. Opportunistic bystanders rushed in and filled baskets and aprons with flour to take home. The commotion spread to other nearby merchants, and only dissolved when the police showed up in greater numbers, backed up by the New York militia. A clutch of men were arrested.
Who was directly responsible, it’s hard to tell; and the forensic post-script was a mess of xenophobia, activism and conspiracy theorizing. Loco-Foco organizers emphasized their peaceful agenda and disavowed the violent group as agitators who had come late to the meeting to stir up trouble, noting that none of the arrested men were from their party. Whig opponents said it was their fault regardless, since if the Loco Focos hadn’t met in the park, there would have been no riot. Some newspapers assured readers that it could only be foreigners who were so reckless and violent; and others claimed the police had been tipped off about the likelihood of a riot and had an agenda. (The Herald described those arrested as “twenty-eight boys, blacks, and ignorant laborers,” and shamed the police for denying bail to a group of “mere boys” who “probably had as little to do with instigating the riot as [senior officer] Bloodgood himself,” and who were more concerned with “impressing upon the public their extraordinary zeal and energy.”)
The flour riots accomplished nothing of note. The looming financial crisis, which would be known as the Panic of 1837, became real when financial bubbles burst only weeks after van Buren’s inauguration. Unemployment went as high as twenty-five percent. The Loco-Focos eventually folded in with their Tammany Hall opponents in an effort to try and effect meaningful change, but the strain of rising prices and unemployment continued to wear on Americans, and the economic depression caused by the Panic of 1837 would continue into the early 1840s, with the California Gold Rush in 1848 finally giving the economy a needed push into security.
The Loco-Foco party name allegedly came from a political meeting at Tammany Hall in which the home team shut off the gas lights in an attempt to forcibly end the meeting on their terms, and activists struck “loco-foco” self-striking matches to light the room and keep debate going.
President Martin Van Buren’s inauguration was March 4, 1837, only weeks after the riot, and tensions ran high. The New York Daily Herald had written with evident irritation that the incoming President was in far better straits than many of his constituency: “What a happy country this is! Flour at $12, and rising – fuel over $14, and rising – rents 50 per cents additional – no work – no wages, and the President of our choice, the favorite of the people, the great ‘expunger’ of low prices, stepping from $6,000 a year, into $25,000 – a house free of rent, and ‘cold wittels’ included!” This is a large part of why Van Buren was a one-term President: by 1840, frustrated voters tagged him with responsibility for the overall crap state of the economy, and were more than happy to vote for William Henry Harrison instead.
New Yorkers were alarmingly used to the city calling in the military on them. The 7th Regiment, New York Militia, which would come to be known as the “Silk Stocking Unit” for its upper-class membership in the Gilded Age and onward, got a lot of mileage out of riot work in the nineteenth century. In addition to the Flour Riot, the 7th was called out to manage the 1834 Election and Abolition Riots, the Croton Water Riot in 1840, the Astor Place Riot, the Dead Rabbit Riots and the Staten Island Quarantine Riot – and that’s only a few.
Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, The history of the Loco-foco, or Equal Rights Party (1842)
Digital Public Library of America, The Panic of 1837
“The Flour Riot of 1837,” The New Yorker, November 14, 1931