June 11, 2013

Historical Food of Eastern State Penitentiary: Warning! Photo Heavy!

This weekend, Eastern State Penitentiary hosted a historical prison food weekend. For those of you not from this area, Eastern State was established by an advocacy group, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, in 1829. The design was radical for the time period. 

Eastern State Penitentiary created the Pennsylvania System of rehabilitating prisoners. At the time, many believed that solitude and reflection in ones own self were the best way to free a prisoner of a future light of crime.

In the earliest times of the prison, prisoners were kept in isolated cells attached to an individual cement exercise garden. There were no doors leading to the cells on the inside of the prison, but each cell had a feeding hole, a small cement box surrounded by a heavy door.

Prisoners were not supposed to see or hear another person until their sentence was completed. Guards and workers wore socks over their shoes so that prisoners would not hear them walking.

Upon being brought in and let out of the cells, prisoners were made to wear sacks over their heads to prevent prisoners from seeing people or their location within the prison. All of this solitude was supposed to inspire repentance. The cells were revolutionary for the time period. Each cell had running water, flush toilets and central heating. They also had a skinny, open skylight.

It was a tourist attraction, even in the 1800s. When Charles Dickens visited in he wrote:

In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing...I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.
I had only been to the prison once before but it was at night, so I did not get to really look around. It was interesting during the day. Andy and I took an audio tour and then did a little bit of exploring on our own. They had some special booths set up where visitors could try prison food through the ages, starting with a basic cornmeal mush and ending with modern "Nutraloaf." 

P.S: Duval and Co., 1855.

The food prisoners were fed in the early years of the prison was actually considered quite good food for the location and era. They had salt beef and cornmeal mush for us to try. The next thing they served was from the 1940s; it was hamburger steak and beets. The dishes were finished up with Nutraloaf, a tasteless but nutritious, loaf of food, used in modern times as a punishment. 

Al Capone's Cell

Overall, a fun trip. Yes, we paid money to eat prison food. The people of the 1800s, would probably be speechless. :) The only other time Andy and I had visited the prison was a couple of years ago when a concert was held in 7 block 7, pictured above.


  1. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about this piece of history; I've heard about similar prison tours before and don't find it strange that you paid to eat prison food! Fine photography, too. :)


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