Outdoor markets were one of the rare places in Philadelphia
during the early 1800s where people of all ages, professions,
social classes, and races would interact. For an artist, they
provided a lens to study these exchanges. In this painting,
the circle of people around the soup vendor includes a tall
man from the country, an older woman, a former soldier, a
kneeling woman feeding a young boy, and two girls with
a basket of flowers. There are some elements of harmony
between them, like in the shared gesture of raising a spoon
or tilting their heads. But there are also signs of discomfort:
the two girls, dressed in the fancy clothes of wealthy
city families, look at the old soldier, perhaps with pity or
condescension. Their bright footwear stands out in contrast
with the bare feet of the street vendor, alone in the center
of the group.
John Lewis Krimmel was born in Germany and had only arrived in Philadelphia a year before painting Pepper-Pot. His observation of street life in his adopted city appealed to his contemporary museum audiences. He provided an immigrant’s perspective on society in a country just beginning to establish its national identity.
One aspect of life in the United States that was different from Germany was the presence of the large Free Black community. Many of the jobs that were open to Black people depended on white attitudes about what was appropriate. For entrepreneurial Black women without professional training, cooking and selling food was an alternative to domestic labor. Black female street vendors were an important part of Philadelphia’s economy by 1811. Many of them achieved economic self-sufficiency despite discrimination. Pepper-pot soup was a popular dish often sold by Black women on High Street. Over many generations, as people were forcibly transported to Philadelphia through the transatlantic slave trade, they incorporated food traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean into the spicy soup still enjoyed today.