Lillian Harris Dean, more than just a “pig” foot note of history

13 Aug
pig 02

Photographer unknown.

Hello, welcome to today’s celebration of Pig Foot Mary.

I know, I know. My publicist and I had not heard of Pig Foot Mary before either, which really annoys us because she is truly one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time. Did you know that she amassed a fortune simply by selling boiled pigs feet on a sidewalk in Harlem?

How could she remain so long under the radar?

This book is available through Chocolate Fudge Books.

This book is available through Chocolate Fudge Books.

The information on Pig Foot Mary, whose real name is a much classier Lillian Harris Dean, is minimal at best, but here’s what my publicist and I were able to verify.

  • Lillian Harris Dean was born into the impoverished Mississippi Delta in 1870.

  • Her parents were former slaves, and despite the Emancipation Proclamation having gone into effect seven years earlier, life was still brutally dismal for blacks.

  • Lillian was unhappy and learned of other Southern blacks migrating north, where living conditions were less hostile. She landed in New York City in 1901 and was hired as a domestic.

  • After accumulating $5, Lillian purchased a used baby carriage, a large pot for boiling and raw pigs feet.

  • She boiled the pigs feet in the pot, then used the baby carriage to transfer the goods to a street corner in Harlem, setting up shop directly across from a saloon where she predicted its patrons would step outside and smell the delicate aroma of a long-lost Southern favorite.

  • They forked over cash

  • Within weeks, Pig Foot Mary, purchased a steamer and table, which the nearby owner of a nearby newsstand allowed her to set up near his shop.

  • She married the fellow entrepreneur, John Dean.

  • Pig Foot Mary added corn (when in season) and chitlins and Southern favorites, but did not spend one penny more than necessary.

  • In 1917, John suggested she invest in real estate. She purchased a five-story apartment building at 7th and 137th for $42,000 in cash.

  • In 1923, Pig Foot Mary sold the building for $72,000.

  • Pig Foot Mary continued sell boiled pigs feet, 14 hours a day, and invest in real estate.

  • Pig Foot Mary was an illiterate black woman who never stepped foot inside a classroom, characteristics seldom used to define a potential business developer.

  • After accumulating $375,000, she retired to California where she died in 1929.

Using this consumer price inflation converter, (this is a lot of fun!) we converted Pig Foot Mary’s earnings into today’s dollars. Ready?

$42,000 in 1917 = $766,185 in 2013

$72,000 in 1923 = $983.174.74 in 2013

$375,000 in 1929 = $5.1 million in 2013

That’s called ‘living high off the hog.’

We could not uncover any images of Pig Foot Mary, but the good folks at Digital Harlem Blog have more on Pig Foot Mary and the other vendors that made up the character of Harlem.

Chocolate Fudge Books, based out of Harlem, has written a book (pictured here) highlighting the plight of Pig Foot Mary, so more people, like us, are aware of how incredible a woman she was.

My publicist and I have not exactly fans of pigs feet, actually neither one of us has ever tasted one (not our thing,) but it’s great to see what one can accumulate by putting one foot after another!  xo, LMA


6 Responses to “Lillian Harris Dean, more than just a “pig” foot note of history”

  1. Bruce K. Thiesen August 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    LMA – very nice! One foot after the other, for sure. I counted 280,000!

    Here is a “back of the envelope” calculation. According to the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Home 1901-1902 biennial report, they spent an average $14.84 per barrel of pigs feet (presumably brined and prepared). On the assumptions (1) no price variance between Harlem and Illinois; and (2) there was a wholesale margin of 10%, a barrel may have cost Lillian Harris Dean $13.35 to purchase and prepare for sale. If a barrel then is a barrel now, Ms. Dean came up with 130 pigs feet in each barrel leading to about 10.3 cents each. A&P earned a gross margin of 20-25 percent back then, so let’s go with a sale price of 15 cents each, which would have earned her a margin of about 32%. Surely, the convenience and customer loyalty (and obvious sales skills) leads a premium. To then figure out just how many pigs feet Ms. Dean sold to accumulate $42,000 for her first Harlem real estate acquisition, we divide that amount by the sales price of 15 cents. $42,000 divided by 15 cents equals 280,000, which then translates into 56 per day, assuming 16 years of six-day weeks.

    • louisamayalcatt August 15, 2013 at 8:45 am #

      Wow! let us guess, You majored in economics!? Nice stats and very interesting. Of course, we have to factor in inclement weather and what not. regardless, Pig Foot Mary is remarkable.

      thank you for stopping by. love your posts, too, xo LMA

  2. A Rhythm Runs Through It August 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    Great post! Thanks for teaching me about another great women in history LMA!

    • louisamayalcatt August 20, 2013 at 6:27 am #

      You’re welcome. We love learning about these incredible ladies, too.

  3. Carol Jamison August 14, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Great story about a successful woman, Ms. Alcatt!

  4. Mary Strong-Spaid August 15, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    So interesting….always nice to hear a success story!!

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