De Voe, Thomas F. (Thomas Farrington), 1811-1892
Thomas F. De Voe, butcher, historian, and public servant, was born in Lower Yonkers, New York in 1811. As a boy he moved to New York and was apprenticed to Joseph Hill, a butcher at Washington Market, until 1827. At age eighteen he began serving with the local militia, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel. When a new market - Jefferson Market - opened, De Voe took up a butcher stand, and began his own business. In 1840, he was chosen by the market's butchers to represent them in city matters relating to rules and regulations of their market. At the same time, he began issuing a paper called the Market Assistant, which required collecting current data affecting the markets. His exposure to the inner workings of the markets spurred his interest. He began compiling a history of city markets, poring through records at the New York Historical Society. He presented a paper before the Society in 1858, and in 1862 he published an expanded version as a book entitled The Market Book, which contained an historical account of the public markets in New York. As the Christian Inquirer explained, De Voe managed to comb through "the early records, the journals of courts, the city newspapers, the law reports, private letters and collections, public libraries and archives, histories, books, tracts, petitions and legislative proceedings . . ." to draw a complete account of the old markets. "Of all the curious works which a spirit of antiquarian research has yet produced in the United States, this book is the most remarkable . . ." wrote the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch. "To be a good butcher is a good thing; but to be a good butcher and a good author at the same time does not often happen, even in New York," wrote the Evening Express, pronouncing De Voe "prince among the butchers."
In 1867, De Voe published The Market Assistant, featured in this collection. Though he intended to print a second volume to the Market Book, the Civil War interrupted his plans: "The dreadful Rebellion, however, commenced with the attack on Fort Sumter the day after I had arranged for the publishing of the first volume, and I concluded to wait for the suppression of the Rebellion before entering upon the second," he writes in the Preface to The Market Assistant. Instead, he put aside the historical materials, and compiled an original sourcebook of the meats, fish, wild game and produce available for sale at the public markets in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Boston, complete with, as De Voe says, "many curious incidents and anecdotes." De Voe even drew the diagrams and the remarkable frontispiece of himself standing in his butcher shop. The March 17, 1867 review by the New York Times praised the book's comprehensive nature and commented: "Very few who have had the extensive practical experience of Mr. De Voe, possess the tact or inclination to give the public the benefit of it, and this, of course, makes the volume all the more valuable."
De Voe remained in business until 1872, when the city appointed him Superintendent of Markets. On July 12, 1873, the New York Times printed an indignant letter he wrote as Superintendent, in which he denied the charges made by the Board of Health that Washington Market was filthy and unhealthy. (Nevertheless, as the paper noted five days later, he did order the stands to be altered to allow the gutters to be flooded and drained more effectively.) He was removed from his position in 1876, reappointed in 1881, and resigned in October 1883 at age seventy-two. De Voe continued to lecture and write, publishing Genealogy of the De Veaux Family, Introducing the Numerous Forms of Spelling the Name by Various Branches and Generations in the Past 1,100 Years in 1885; the New York Times, in their review of the work, could not help but comment that "Col. De Voe, whose love for antiquarian research is so conspicuous, has been led to work up the genealogy of his own name, and in his usual indefatigable way presents very curious information pertaining to the past."
De Voe, who also wrote and lectured on the history of New York City, was elected a member to the Historical Societies of New York, Long Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. He passed away at his home, after a long illness, at age eighty-one. When his library of historical books was sold at auction in April 1896, one of the items sold was "names (in neat manuscript) of the butchers of New York City from the earliest times, alphabetically arranged, about 500 folio pages, $20." It was probably one of his favorite items, given that in all his historical papers and books, De Voe identified himself always as "Thomas F. De Voe, Butcher."
- De Voe, Thomas Farrington, The Market Assistant, Containing a Brief Description of Every Article of Human Food Sold in the Public Markets of the Cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867.
- The New York Times, "New Publications." (Review of The Market Assistant.) March 17, 1867.
- ----------, "The New Superintendent of Markets - Reforms Suggested by the Controller." December 17, 1871.
- ----------, "Washington Market. The Sanitary Condition - Recent Improvements - Exaggerated Reports." July 12, 1873.
- ----------, "Washington Market Stands." July 17, 1873.
- ----------, "Old New York. Col. Thomas F. De Voe Sketches the History of the Island." February 10, 1881.
- ----------, "Genealogy of the De Veaux Family." July 20, 1885.
- ----------, "Abattoirs. History of New-York Slaughter-Houses - Interesting and Curious Data." April 1, 1866.
- ----------, "Obituary. Thomas F. De Voe." February 2, 1892.
- ----------, "Historical Books at Auction. Sale of the Thomas F. De Voe Library Concluded." April 9, 1896.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman