Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Price of Bread - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to our weekly installment of Postal History Sunday on the Genuine Faux Farm blog!  This is the place where I get to share something I enjoy and maybe we'll all learn something new in the process.

Before we get started, let's pack up those troubles and worries and throw them into the well.  We all know our worries are pretty heavy, so they won't float.  That should get them out of our hair for a while!  Please don't throw Timmy into the well, because that will cause Lassie to go get help - and we don't need anyone fishing those troubles out along with Timmy.


Not too long ago, I picked up a mailed circular that caught my eye not for the postal history, but for the contents of the item being mailed.  Anyone who has passing knowledge of European history may perk up if there is mention of a "Bread Tax."  But, it is also likely that most people, like me, won't know exactly where they heard about a bread tax or what it means.  I am guessing some vague recollection about Marie Antoinette and peasants "eating cake" may come to mind.  But, the story (as usual) is much more complex and interesting than just a side reference to the French Revolution. 

A poster for the bakery to display

Since the flyer is in French, perhaps I can help out by translating some of it to English:

"The mayor of the village of Tarbes informs the administrators the voluntary bread tax for the 2nd fortnight of June 1865 is fixed as follows:"
The average prices of wheat (three quality levels) follow on the sheet (per hectolitre).  Which then concludes with the bread prices.
"According to these prices the voluntary tax is the following:" 

 Price levels follow for white bread and mixed grain bread (Meteil).

The literal translation to "tax" is actually inaccurate, since this is clearly a price control recommendation rather than an additional cost levied to be collected by the government. The bakery posted this sheet so the public could see the recommended prices and compare to the prices being requested for their bread.

Getting from here to there

This item was mailed from Tarbes in Southern France (Hautes-Pyranees department) to nearby Vic-en-Bigorre, which was apparently under the jurisdiction of Tarbes for the purposes of the 'taxe officieuse du pain.'   

The standard letter rate was used for this item rather than a printed matter or other discounted postage rate.  The letter rate was 20 centimes for an item up to 10 grams in weight which was effective from Jul 1, 1860 - Aug 31, 1871.  

So, why wouldn't this qualify for the printed matter rate?  After all, this is a pre-printed form where some details have been entered.  It seems like it might qualify since this was probably not the only location where this flyer was being sent.

Most countries prohibited additional writing that "added" information beyond what was pre-printed if a mailer wanted to use the special printed matter rates.  The general idea is they did not want people abusing the privilege of cheaper postage for mass-produced items by sending additional notes that personalized an item.  That's where this particular item treads a fine line.  The information written in simply follow the requirements of the form.  Does that constitute additional information that could not be included in an item that hoped to use the printed matter discount rates?

Apparently, the answer at this time in France was - yes, yes it does cross that line.  So, it was sent as a single rate letter.

Vic-en-Bigorre arrival June 9, 1865
The item is postmarked on Jun 8, 1865 and was given an "Apres Le Depart" box marking to indicate that it was posted AFTER the mail had left for the day.   These markings were used by the post office as a way of explaining delays in delivery.  In this case, the item came to the post office after the scheduled train had left the station.  This piece of mail waited at the Tarbes post office until the next day when it was put on the next departing train.  It arrived at Vic-en-Bigorre on June 9 - taking the train for only 20 kilometers to the North.

"Taxe Officieuse du Pain" means what exactly?

It took a while to find the right search parameters, but once I did I was able to find a couple of books that clarified the topic for me.  The explanation given by Knoop (resource #1) couldn't be made clearer, so I use it here:

"... policy adopted by many French municipalities of fixing each week a taxe officieuse du pain and in a few cases a taxe officielle du pain.  Each is based upon the current price of corn, the calculations being made according to a fixed rule that allows for the cost of baking and for the baker's profits.  The taxe officieuse is merely semi-official and indicates to purchasers what constitutes a reasonable price for bread.  The taxe officielle is an official price which may not be exceeded for the specified qualities of bread." [1, p 72]

This flyer calculates bread prices based on the price of wheat, not corn.  But, that's not really the point.  The point is that the poster or flyer provides price suggestions for different types of bread based on the values of the various grains used to make that bread.

"The notices on which the prices are printed... have to be displayed in a conspicuous position in every baker's shop." [1, p 72]

The top corners of this sheet seem to indicate that it was, indeed, posted somewhere and then taken down.  Someone must have felt like saving these since this copy has managed to survive to the present day - in excellent condition.

How often was a new poster or flyer created and sent out from Tarbes (and other locations in France) to all of the bakeries under their jurisdiction?  Since this particular item references the "2nd fortnight of June" we might be able to conclude that a new sheet was mailed out and posted in each bakery roughly every two weeks (or half-month). 

Why unofficial bread price controls?

It turns out that the step from required to voluntary price controls was a fairly new situation in France in 1865.  Free trade for bakers was established in France in mid-1863.  Prior to that, there were taxe officielle that set prices for bread and these controls were actually a tool that was used to maintain the peace in France (and Italy - perhaps other locations as well?).

"Another sign of the times was the final extension of free trade to the bakers, with the suspension of age-old restrictions by a decree of 22 June 1863.  Regulation of bread prices (the taxe du pain) and controls over bakers had traditionally been key elements of police power.  The ending of such regulations became acceptable only with the disappearance of  massive price fluctuations and the reduction in the consumer emotiveness which had been so characteristic of the ancient regime economique.  It was anticipated that liberation, accompanied by an end to limitations to the number of bakers, would increase competition and reduce price levels." [2, p202]

The consumer "emotiveness" referenced by Price in the above quote was rooted in the extreme reliance on bread in the diet of most people during the Industrial Revolution period.  In particular, the move to urbanization resulted in fewer people working the land for their own subsistence. 

 Bakery in France circa 1900

If bread provided the majority of a person's diet, it only makes sense that shortages or high prices would cause an "emotive" response.  If you can't get bread, you can't eat - so you can't live.  Neely suggests that a common worker in France would expect at least 50% of their wages to go toward bread.  That percentage rose to 88% in 1788-1789. [3]

In short, price controls were maintained for bread to help insure that the citizenry would have access to their primary food source.  When those controls became "semi-official," bakeries were still encouraged to post the suggested pricing as a way to illustrate to their customers that they were providing a "fair price" for their products.

Did you say Italy too?

Yes, yes I did!  Well, actually, the resources I read regarding these price controls mentioned Italy.  Because of that, I have been keeping my eyes open for a similar poster or notice in Italy and finally located one.

Translated from Italian, this flyer reads:

"Rate for the sale of bread in the normal ovens of Macerata"

The effective date range is July 18 to August 3 of 1852 - once again, about a fortnight's span for effective dates.  Three prices are given.  One for brown bread, one for white bread and one for "all grains."  In this case, no information is given on the base prices of the grains themselves.

The biggest difference between this poster and the French poster is that this one shows required pricing for bread, whereas the later, French, guidelines were a suggestion and not a requirement.  In other words, these were the maximum prices that a bakery could charge during this particular fortnight and this maximum was enforced by government.

Once again, the government in the larger town or city is sending out these posters or flyers to the surrounding settlements.  Macerata would be the main city in the province of the same name in the Papal States of Italy.  This poster was sent to MonteCassiano, which is only eleven kilometers to the North.

There are two hand stamped markings on this side of the cover.  The oblong, rounded shape reads "Municipio di Macerata" and would be a governmental marking indicating that this was sent by the city government of Macerata.  The round markings shows a date of "18 Lug 52" (July 18, 1852) and the city name "Macerata."  This would be the postal marking that was applied at the time the letter was mailed.

Local mail in the Papal States

In the 1850s Italy was not a unified whole.  Instead, there were several different governments that controlled various portions of the peninsula.  Central Italy was controlled by the Catholic Church in Rome and is often referred to as either the Roman States or Papal States.  The postage rates for the Papal States during this period are a fairly complex study in and of themselves.  

The bread price notice shown above qualifies as a local letter, which means the origin and destination falls within a postal district.  In this case, the Macerata postal district.  The cost of postage was 1 bajocca (plural bajocchi) for every 6 denari in weight.  This rate was effective from Jan 1, 1852 until Dec 31, 1863.

Here is another example of local mail in the Papal States.  Just like the first, you should note that the address side of the cover has no postage stamp.  But, it does have the number "1" written in ink to indicate the postage amount due for this piece of letter mail.  The town of origination also placed a handstamp that reads "Jesi" (also spelled "Iesi" in some sources).  The postage stamp is placed on the reverse of the folded lettersheet.

This was the typical process for mail that was sent unpaid.  The amount due was written on the front (address side) and a stamp was placed on the back in anticipation of payment.  Most nations during this period would not bother with the postage stamp when a letter was sent unpaid.  This Postal History Sunday blog gives an example.

This second local letter in Italy actually includes what is often called a "Prices Current" that shows the prices of various commodities during a period of time.  This particular item only gives a grain price, which tells me that it may have a connection to our bread price control in the Papal States.  Is it possible that some municipalities (such as Jesi) sent the established grain price and expected the local bakers or local authorities to make their own calculations based on some set of guidelines?  That's a question for which I don't have an answer.

Flour War of 1775

And, this is where the history tidbit most of us have some recollection of connects to the topic as a whole ("Let them eat cake!").  

In Sept 1774, free trade in grain was established and police controls were abolished with respect to grain and bakers.  The government relaxed or removed bread price controls as part of the new "laissez-faire/laissez-passe" policy that encouraged less government participation in the economics of the country.  The "Flour War" of 1775" occurred as result of high bread prices that followed the removal of those controls. 

New freedom in pricing led to speculation in grains, with individuals hoarding in anticipation of the creation of higher prices.  As a result, there were grain shortages in early 1775 with the prior year's crops either consumed or hoarded and the new year's crops not yet mature.  

With the new "laissez-faire" system, speculators bought from regions with plenty and held onto the grain - essentially putting all regions in a position of scarcity that relied on these speculators to provide the needed grain at the speculators' price.  This differed from prior periods of shortage which were normally regional.  In those cases, the government could receive a petition and respond to alleviate the shortage by moving grain from an area of surplus - thus keeping prices steady.  Now the surplus was not under the government's control and the people who controlled that surplus wanted to get paid (and paid well).

In some locations, the people executed what they called a "popular taxation" by liberating grain shipments and selling at a "proper or fair price."  In general, rioting targeted the hoarders and others (often government officials) that were supposed to be responsible for the shortages.  The government was forced to respond with force and they re-instituted controls on grains and bakeries soon after.

Even with the restored price controls, bread was still one of the motivating factors in the French Revolution of 1788-1789.  There were poor crops worldwide for several years due to the Laki volcano eruption in Iceland (June 8, 1873).  Hungry people became desperate people.  Desperate people became dangerous people once they decided the current government (true or not) was using famine to its benefit.  Obviously, the French Revolution was far more complex than this, but it can truly be said that hunger, and as illustrated by a poorly timed economic experiment thirteen years earlier, played a role.

The cautious removal of price controls in 1863

Going back to the first item we showed in the blog - let me remind you that this was a poster that was placed in a bakery to show what the recommended prices for bread should be.  While a baker could certainly charge more for a product than the prices shown in the taxe officieuse, the consumer could make an informed choice about price based on the baseline prices offered by the government.

By the time we get to 1863 (88 years after the Flour War), improved infrastructure for communications and transportation had resulted in conditions that could potentially support free trade in grains and an open market for bakers. 

"Even so, the government remained cautious.  Local authorities were still required to establish a taxe officieuse and to publish it: this was to be the suggested selling price for bread.  Furthermore, a list of bakers selling below this price was to be published to encourage competition." [2, p 202]
The piece of postal history in this blog post is evidence of this system voluntary/recommended price control that was noted to still be in use in many parts of France as late as 1912 by Knoop. 

While you might think the French Revolution and the Flour Wars might have been firmly in the rearview mirror by this point in time, there was still resistance to the idea of a free market for bread and grains. 
"In 1863, after a good harvest, the price of bread ... was estimated to be some 2 centimes higher than if the taxe du pain had been retained.... There was thus widespread discontent with the new system.  This noticeably increased after poor harvests in 1866 and 1867." [2, p 202]
However, this time, the change to a more "laissez-faire" approach in the grain market stuck, resulting in a system that flattened out price changes.
"In spite of this, consumers were in a far better position than before because of the reduction in the amplitude and rapidity of price fluctuations." [2, p 203]


And there you have it - another Postal History Sunday that travels between postal history and the broader history that surrounds those items.  It often amazes me how simple pieces of postal history can provide me with an opportunity to take these interesting journeys.  Remember - these were items that were normal and unremarkable parts of peoples' lives in the 1850s and 1860s.  It often makes me wonder what commonplace items that reside in our own homes and businesses will be looked at in the same way as I view these old pieces of letter mail 150 years from now.

Thank you for joining me and I hope you have a beautiful, blessed day and a good week to come.

[1]Knoop, Douglas, "Principles and Methods of Municipal Trading", MacMillan and Co, Ltd, London, 1912

[2] Price, Roger, "the Modernization of Rural France: Communications, Networks and Agricultural Market Structures in Nineteenth Century France," Routledge, London, 1983.

[3]Neely, Sylvia, "A Concise History of the French Revolution,"  Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Lesgor, R, Minnigerode, M & Stone, R.G., "The Cancellations on French Stamps of the Classic Issues: 1849-1876," Nassau Stamp Company, 1948. 

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