Public Markets and the City: A Historical Perspective

Oct 29, 2005
May 1, 2024

- Helen Tangires, October 30, 2005

From the 6th International Public Market Conference

The premise of this year's conference theme is that great markets make great cities, and vice versa. In my talk this morning, basically "Market History 101," I hope to demonstrate that this phenomenon has a long history. Since antiquity, cities throughout the world have established markets to provide shelter for buyers and sellers and to protect and promote the trade in fresh food. We will look briefly at the history of public markets in Europe, and then zoom in on the development of market types in Washington and Baltimore, as examples of the fact that public markets were critical to the city's self image and visible indicators of a healthy and well-regulated economy. Judging the city's performance, of course, was the market shopper, who could always see, hear, taste, and smell whether or not government was doing its job.

The power of public markets to contribute positively to a city's image must be understood in the context of the long urban tradition in Europe. For centuries, local government established market laws and constructed special buildings and spaces that demonstrated its commitment to protect citizens from spoiled food, high prices, food shortages, and merchandise that did not meet standard weight or measure. Sales of perishable goods were carried on openly, at specified times, so that anyone passing by may judge the quality of goods and witness transactions. The building type that clearly displayed openness was the market cross, which numbered over 800 in England and Wales by the seventeenth century. The market cross featured some symbol of authority, such as a flag, royal crest, bell tower, or clock, to remind citizens that marketing would be regulated and supervised. Most vendors were strictly confined to sell at the market cross or other designated place in order to facilitate food inspection and enforcement of market laws. Licensing and regulation also extended to vendors whose ambulatory privileges allowed them to sell door-to-door to the sick, elderly, or handicapped. Street vendors walked a fine line between entrepreneurship and public service. When the market bells rang, these public servants began a performance that was carefully calculated to inform the community that business and government were working together to ensure the common good.

Sixteenth century Dutch market scenes remind us that even a snowy day would not hinder the important task of provisioning the city. The visible hand of government is evident in the placement of vendors in and around the municipal market sheds. Butchers had exclusive use of the sheds and suspended their meat from the eaves in order to maintain freshness and to facilitate inspection. Fish sales, on the other hand, were conducted out in the open and, away from the meat, with some fish sold live, from tanks. And dutiful vendors brave the cold and long hours on their feet - a sight not much different from today.

Contrary to modern notions of cleanliness and hygiene, the open-air sheds and food exposed to the elements represented positive qualities in a market--where transactions could be witnessed easily and where the food itself was literally open for public inspection. Food marketing was a public act--carefully orchestrated by local officials and the city's food purveyors who were eager to achieve their mutual goal of provisioning the city.

Vendors also demonstrated their pride and commitment to the city by participating in local fairs and festivals. For example, butchers displayed food hyperboles, such as giant sausages, at festival time. A 19th-century illustrator had fun with the sausage makers of Königsberg in a fantastic image in which butchers parade a giant sausage outside of the city gates and are depicted again, below, cutting it up for public consumption.

The marketplace served not only the daily shopper or the occasional patron at festival time but also the weary traveler. As portrayed in this 18th century Italian scene, a spaghetti vendor sets up shop at the end stall of a portside market house, where newly arrived immigrants satisfy their hunger in a welcoming environment. Because of the market's central location, access to roads and waterways, and open, flexible plan, it was well positioned to satisfy a diverse community, all under one roof.

The close relationship between the city and its public markets also took shape, in the combined town hall and market - a building type that still exists throughout Europe and the United States. Boston's Faneuil Hall for example, built in 1742, followed the English practice of building an open, arcaded market on the ground floor, with municipal offices on the upper floor. By combining the two functions - market and town hall - into one building, the town economized on construction costs and kept marketing off the streets.

Combined markets and town halls, with minor variations in style and ornament, were built in cities from Rhode Island to South Carolina and many of them still standing. Clockwise from upper left are the markets of Newport, Fayetteville, Charleston, and Cheraw.

Boston's market soon outgrew its quarters on the ground floor of the town hall, prompting Mayor Josiah Quincy to commit one million dollars - an unprecedented public investment in markets--for a series of massive stone buildings dedicated exclusively to food marketing and distribution. Observers hailed the granite market house, approximately 500 by 36 feet, as the largest and most elegant in the world.

More common than massive stone market houses, however, were the simple free-standing sheds that stood in the middle of a street or public square, such as Houston's City Market and the York public market in Pennsylvania. These sheds owed their popularity to the fact that they provided minimal protection from the elements for the least cost, they did not require an architect, and they were quick to build. Moreover, builders could use the familiar modular bay system employed in other structures, such as barns and churches, to achieve the desired building length.

Yet even for these relatively simple structures, the city was dedicated to quality of construction, as we learn from documents such as an affidavit from 1802 that confirms that the Pittsburgh city council hired someone to measure the new market house for compliance with specifications in the contract. A drawing for a market house in Mobile, Alabama, dated 1823, notes a simple free standing shed, but the city's contract demanded solid brick piers, side aisles supported by sturdy wooden columns, a paved brick floor, a gable roof with cypress or pine shingles, and a stylish curved plaster ceiling.

The concentration of food retailers under one roof had many advantages. Vendors could keep an eye on their competition; the municipal clerk could oversee the market; and customers could choose among several different merchants. The market house also created the conditions for synergism, the merchandising phenomenon that occurs when vendors benefit from selling in proximity to one another.

An unknown artist chose the courthouse and surrounding markets as the subject of this city portrait of Pittsburgh. Across the street from the courthouse stands the impressive horse-shoe shaped market shed on what appears to be a busy market day. This scene conveys the importance of the marketplace to the economic health and self-image of the city.

Markets have long had the reputation for being the place where visitors could observe the entire city in miniature. Describing the New Orleans market in his journal of 1819, the American architect, Henry Benjamin Latrobe wrote that "Along the Levee, as far as the eye could reach to the West, and to the Market House to the East were ranged two rows of Market people, some having stalls or tables with a Tilt or awning of Canvass, but the Majority having their wares lying on the ground, perhaps on a piece of canvas, or a parcel of Palmetto leaves." Latrobe continued with graphic descriptions of the racial and ethnic diversity of the vendors, as well as their colorful costumes and songs.

A traveler to Philadelphia in the late 18th century noted that High Street Market was a place of perfect equality, where one could find people from all walks of life--the young and the old, the rich and the poor.

The City of Philadelphia was also known for its numerous African-American women who sat in the market houses and at the corners selling pepperpot. This soup was made chiefly from tripe, ox-feet, and other inexpensive cuts of meat, heavily seasoned and spiced. These women supplemented the family income by selling the soup from vacant stalls when the market was closed. Considered a public service, the pepperpot vendor was praised not only for her entertainment and familiar cry, but also for providing a hearty meal for a few cents to the poor.

New York City officials also recognized that street vendors were critical to the city's self image. The sights and sounds of these vendors filled the city's vast network of streets and neighborhoods--as proudly displayed on this scarf from 1814. Placed in the center of the composition is City Hall, surrounded by 14 vignettes of various street vendors and their associated cries. Typically for sale were quick hot snacks such as baked pears and hot corn, delicate items, such as strawberries, and items too heavy or bulky for the average person to carry home, such as sand for construction or cat tails for bedding.

Butchers, by far, were the most powerful vendors in the city markets, in part because of the history and nature of their trade. Since municipal laws and ordinances required fresh meat to be sold only in the public markets, this mandatory centralization encouraged trade solidarity and competition. The success of butchers like Charles Brown and Thomas DeVoe, shown here, rested on winning the loyalty of local officials as well as that of a steady, trusting clientele. Dress, of course, was part of their performance, as they projected an image of respectability and cleanliness by wearing gentlemen's attire, complete with top hat, protected by white sleeves and an apron or frock.

Butchers in the United States carried on the European practice of participating in public parades in order to promote their trade and to display their loyalty to the city. Newspaper accounts reported that on March 15th, 1821, the Philadelphia butchers produced one of the most brilliant spectacles ever exhibited in the Quaker City. The Procession of Victuallers shows the two-mile parade of butchers in white frocks drawing carts of meat to High Street Market, where the meat was sold within twenty-four hours.

Public markets were exclusively local affairs until after the Civil War, when the federal government began to show interest. Horace Capron, the United States Commissioner of Agriculture from 1867 to 1871, was the first commissioner to conduct a nationwide survey of public markets. Capron admired, in particular, the Philadelphia market houses, where the Pennsylvania farmer met the consumer face to face. He also observed that food shoppers and dealers came in different classes, particularly in large cities. Realizing the potential of public markets, Capron recommended that cities develop market systems to satisfy a diversity of buyers and sellers. Capron also recommended- and again, this is in the late 1860s - that cities should revise their market regulations in ways that would encourage farmers into the city.

Capron also stressed the need for improved marketing facilities in the United States. Looking northeast across the Mall from his headquarters in the Agriculture Building, Capron would have seen Washington's principal marketplace--this hodge-podge of low frame market sheds that stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, between Seventh and Ninth streets. Following Capron's mandate for improved market facilities, leaders in Washington concluded that the time had come for the national capital to have a modern market house - one that would place the city among the ranks of the great European capitals. On May 20, 1870, an act of Congress authorized the Washington Market Company to construct and manage a new market house that would replace the old, city-run market within two years or less.

The company hired German-trained architect Adolf Cluss to design the new market. Basically, the market consisted of four sections arranged in a square around an open court: first, a row of ornate wholesale stores facing Pennsylvania Avenue, and then three retail wings - one on Seventh Street, one on B Street (now Constitution Avenue), and one on Ninth Street. Market wagons were required to load and unload in the courtyard, so as not to interfere with traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Center Market was one of the largest market houses in the country when it was built, with over 666 stalls covering 57,500 square feet of floor space (more than twice the square footage of Faneuil Hall Market). It was known for its remarkably high ceilings, surmounted by skylights and adjustable ventilator panels, which provided indirect light as well as fresh air.

The tasty, modern stalls had uniform overhead signs that identified the stall number and the name of the vendor. The size and character of the stalls varied according to the different trades. Butcher stalls were forty-eight square feet, compared to thirty-six square feet for butter stalls; and the most modest stalls were for bacon dealers and hucksters.

Outside, the "country people," as they were often called, furnished their own benches under the eaves and awnings and occupied their spaces for a nominal fee. According to the architect, modest facilities for this type of vendor were important because they attracted the mass of customers necessary for the success of any market.

Center Market was also admired for its handsome row of wholesale stores in between the double-towered entrances of the Seventh and Ninth Street wings. The stores were occupied for a time by Armour and Swift--the nation's largest wholesale dealers in Chicago dressed beef. Center Market was the heart of Washington's principal market district, which included a vast row of commission houses that stretched from 9th to 12th streets, on the site now occupied by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice - known today as Federal Triangle. Along Commissioner's Row, poultry vendors offered live chickens and turkeys to curbside customers. And produce merchants sold fruits and vegetables too bulky to sell from inside stalls, such as melons and cantelopes.

Center Market, in short, was an all-in-one market, catering to the year-round retail and wholesale trade on the inside, while at the same time it offered modest outdoor facilities for the sale of live animals, bulk goods, and low-cost, seasonal produce.

At the same time that Center Market was under construction in the 1870s, the City of Alexandria hired the same architect, Adolf Cluss, to design a combined market and city hall, after a fire destroyed the old city hall. Like Center Market, the Alexandria Market and City Hall was U-shaped around a central courtyard. The Royal Street façade contained the city council chambers and offices on an upper level, with market stalls on the ground floor. The other wings contained an engine house, police headquarters, courthouse, and Masonic Temple. The Alexandria City Hall stands today but there is no marketing on the interior. There is, however, an open-air market on the plaza, which some of you may have visited on the tour yesterday. Eastern Market, Cluss's third and final market house, was constructed in 1872 to 1873 and typifies the neighborhood retail market of the late nineteenth century. Cluss worked on the project in his capacity as the city's engineer and member of the Board of Public Works. Eastern Market was noted for its economy of construction, unostentatious design, and standardized architectural vocabulary. The original brick building was approximately 10,000 square feet (or about 1/6 the size of Center Market). A detached open shed for farmers runs the length of the Seventh Street façade. Eastern Market continues to operate in it original quarters and is a Capital Hill landmark.

These three Washington-area markets - all built in the 1870s, exemplify the variety of market types that were available to cities: namely, a central market that catered to the wholesale and retail trade, a neighborhood market house devoted exclusively to retail, and a market that shared quarters with government offices. All three types accommodated open-air sales as well. Among them, only Center Market did not survive, having been demolished in 1931 to make way for the National Archives building.

Baltimore was second only to New Orleans for having the largest number of public markets in the country in the early 20th century. It, too, was a city that exploited a variety of market types depending on location and need - a feature of Baltimore City that I hope was evident to those of you who toured there yesterday. The Wholesale Municipal Fish Market, unfortunately no longer standing, used to be the heart of the city's food marketing and distribution system. Shortly after a fire destroyed much of Baltimore's downtown in 1904, the city constructed this massive building in order to keep the important fish trade alive. Considered a public amenity, the new Fish Market boasted an attractive Italianate brick façade with stone trim, and ample space around its perimeter for loading and unloading. It was here that oysters and blue crabs arrived from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and from the vast tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. There were also dealers that specialized in flounder and haddock from Boston, catfish from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, and shrimp and crabs from the Gulf. The municipal wholesale fish market was fundamental to the development of the city's cuisine and certainly to its close associations with the Chesapeake Bay. More than just places to buy and sell fresh food, these buildings and spaces created a dynamic, open environment that encouraged the transmission, exchange, and introduction, of new tastes and ingredients.

Inside, its cathedral ceiling and multiple windows and doorways allowed for indirect light and ample ventilation - both important features in the design of wholesale markets. Another feature was its unobstructed sales floor and the absence of fixed stalls and display cases that were more commonly found in the retail markets. The open sales floor facilitated the quick sale of bulk perishables and made it easy to wash down the market at the end of the day. Patrons at the fish market included not only grocery store owners and retail fish merchants, but also people making institutional purchases for hotels, restaurants, boarding houses, trains, and ship gallies.

Right next to the wholesale fish market stood the Wholesale Produce Market, also built by the city shortly after the Fire of 1904. It, too, consisted of a large brick shed-like structure and was home to the commission merchants, whose business spilled over to the adjacent warehouses.

The Produce Market, like the Fish Market, benefited from its proximity to the harbor, where boats brought produce from the southern states, enabling Baltimoreans to enjoy an extended season for watermelons and other fruits and vegetables from the South.

The market was also the place where African American street vendors, known as Arabbers, stocked their horse-drawn wagons and navigated the city streets and neighborhoods selling goods to the call of melodious street cries. The arabbers brought, among other things, Eastern Shore cantelopes and tomatoes, California strawberries, and watermelons directly to one's door.

Hollins Market, still a neighborhood landmark, was established in 1835 and grew to become the city's largest market with outdoor stalls by the 20th century. It was known locally for offering standard Baltimore treats, which included bulk relishes, pickled onions, Vienna bread sprinkled with anise seeds, taffies, sauerkraut, dill pickles, and white and russet vinegar. The attractive Italianate brick market house, from the 1860s, was renovated in 1977 and the market continues to operate.

Broadway Market was established in 1784 to serve the bustling waterfront community of Fells Point. Several structures succeeded the original one, including the two-story building on the left, constructed in 1864, and the one story shed on right. Broadway Market was also renovated in the 1970s and still operates in its original location at the foot of Broadway, terminating at the Fells Point waterfront. Other retail markets operated by the city include Cross Street Market, located in Otterbein just a short walk from the Convention Center, as well as Belair Market, Northeast, and Lafayette.

But the story of Baltimore's markets would not be complete without mention of its most famous one--Lexington Market. Nineteenth century accounts describe it as the hub of the city, where as many as 600 wagons would jam the area on Saturdays, when payday crowds of 50,000 men, women and children went to the market. It was Lexington Market that gave Baltimore, at one time, the reputation for being the gastronomical capital of the universe. By 1925 over 1000 stalls under 3 block long sheds comprised the area. In an effort to curtail traffic congestion, as well as to attract a suburban clientele, streetcar service brought shoppers right to the door of the market.

Today, Lexington Market covers more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, occupied by about 130 merchants. In keeping with tradition, many of its stalls offer a variety of delicatessen and prepared foods to local business people, homemakers, and tourists who visit the market for a quick sample of its offerings. Located within walking distance of the Convention Center, at Lexington and Howard Streets, it also makes a handy stop for conventioneers looking for a taste of Baltimore.

Others come for the quality, freshness, and variety of food that attracts shoppers from miles around - people in search of meats trimmed to specification, poultry, fruits and vegetables in and out of season, freshly caught seafood from the Chesapeake Bay, home-baked goods, colorful candies, imported cheeses, groceries, and wine.

The variety of market forms that we saw on our tours yesterday - the open-air market, the enclosed market house, the floating market, and the mammoth wholesale market - were developed over time by cities dedicated to the public market system. Granted, public markets are no longer the exclusive domain of the local government, and the concept of a public market as public amenity has been lost. Yet history has shown us that the city was the chief sponsor of markets. A city was inconceivable without a public market, and a market could not exist without the city. I cannot help but think that the mutual dependence of markets and cities must remain alive, if either will survive in the long run.

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