for illustrations, follow the link at the bottom of the page
The text below accompanied photographs (link at bottom of page) in a 1889 edition of "Harper's Weekly". Stereotypic descriptions of food vendors indicate some of the hardships endured by recent immigrants as well as the prejudices that made their lives that much more difficult.

One of these sales of oranges and lemons is a bewildering sight to a novice, almost as much so as a sale on the Stock Exchange, with the difference that the spectator is not so apt to mistake the floor for the recreation grounds of an insane asylum. The auctioneer is provided with a dais on a platform at the front of the room, and at this side are three clerks who keep track of the transactions. Close under the platform are the rows of chairs reserved for the importers, or the agents of the shippers whose fruit is to be sold. Before him are arranged rows of seats, each personalized with a metal plate bearing the name of an important member of the trade. The largest dealers are seated nearest the auctioneer. The buyers are all provided with catalogues, in which the various lots of fruit on the pier are designated by numbers placed opposite the trade mark of the shipper, every extensive shipper being known to the trade by a copyrighted emblem.

The sales begin at twelve o'clock each day. The buyers have spent the morning inspecting the fruit on the pier, and each has marked in his catalogue the lots that interest him. No sales are made in lots of less than twenty boxes. This limit, however, does not affect the frugal Italian peddler, who generally has sufficient capital in his dirty clothes to purchase at first hand and save the profit that would go to a middleman if the peddlers were obliged to purchase in smaller quantities. Of course the sales made to these small dealers amount to almost nothing in the aggregate of business done, but they are a feature of the fruit trade nevertheless.
It is useless for the spectator who has not served an apprenticeship in the business to attempt to keep track. The air is alive with the Babel of voices, above which the auctioneer's is heard in a perpetual clatter of figures. The buyers are continually turning the leaves of their catalogues and jotting down figures on the pages or in memorandum-books while the pens of the clerks beside the auctioneer are incessantly flying over white paper. In the busy season, when cargoes of the perishable fruit are arriving rapidly at Pier 41, an enormous amount of business is done in the auction-room, Mr. Brown and Mr. Seccomb alternating at the desk in two-hour watches until everything on the pier is disposed of, in order that room may be made for the cargoes for the next day's sale.
A sale of grapes is an even more interesting spectacle than a sale of lemons or oranges. The amphitheatre is provided on three sides with reserved seats that rise upon an inclined plane. In the point of the angle is the auctioneer's desk, and between him and the buyers' seats are the hydraulic lifts upon which the samples are exhibited. As the grapes cannot be opened on the pier for inspection, three sample barrels from each lot are brought to Brown and Seccomb's and unloaded below the auction-room. The sales are then made from these samples, which are brought up on the lifts for inspection. There are two of these elevators,so that while one sample is being exhibited in the auction-room, the sample from the next lot is being placed in readiness below. So rapidly are these lifts operated that samples may be exhibited every thirty seconds; so expert has long practice rendered the buyers that a single glance at the sample informs them of the condition of the fruit. The grapes are sold from a catalogue as are the oranges and lemons.
After the sales are over, the large buyers, whose purchases go on the books of the firm, are given orders permitting the removal of the fruit from the pier at the main office. The peddlers, who are compelled to pay cash for their purchases, are
given their orders in the basement, where a force of clerks lock themselves into a caged desk to receive the money, this precaution being a necessary one. Two or three policemen preserve order among these merchants while the financial transactions are being carried on, in order that there may be no trouble at the desk; and when a certain amount of money is taken in, a policeman escorts the clerk who carries it upstairs through the crowd, in order that the banditti may not redeem their coin summarily.
From Pier 41 the oranges, lemons and grapes in the large lots are distributed to warehouses, groceries, and markets, and sent thence all over the country. In the smaller lots they are hawked about the streets in baskets and pushcarts. And the individual elements of both small and large lots eventually minister in many forms to the delectation of the human appetite.

Push "Next" for Fruit Auction illustrations