Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

They brought sausages and wursts of all kinds, smierkase, a cottage cheese mixed with cream or milk, dried fruits, buttermilk, apple snits, a gingerbread called lep kuchen, teas, baked goods, fruits, vegetables, eggs, honey, poul­try – both live and dressed – and, beginning just before Memorial Day, abundant flowers of seemingly count­less varieties, some almost unknown today. Truly, a moveable feast in the making.

On market days, well before sunrise, farmers traveled from the lush, fertile fields of Pennsylvania into the city, where they sold their produce and goods in public stalls erected by the towns in the heart of the community. These public markets linked city and countryside, and more often than not were the only place for urban dwellers to buy foodstuffs and provisions and all that comes from the land.

Public markets in Pennsylvania were part of a time-honored tradition of government-regulated urban food retailing that depended on carefully-defined laws, spaces, and structures designed to protect the common good. Public ownership of markets was called the “moral economy.” From the earliest days, residents of cities and towns had expected their local governments to protect them from spoiled food, high prices, food shortages, and merchandise that was not of standard weight or measure. Regulated public markets were critical to the survival of communities, for without them unbridled competition and unfair dealings could deprive a community of affordable prices and an adequate food supply.

Merchants and colonists carried to the New World the European public market tradition, including its laws and architec­ture, with the hope that regulated public markets would induce settlement, encourage trade, provide a locus for civic life, and protect the colonists. Citizens clung to the paternalistic notion of regulated public markets, particularly after the American Revolution disrupted normal trade patterns and, for the unscrupulous, created opportunities for hoarding and making an artificial scarcity of food.

Common goals of post-revolutionary government were the rebuilding of market houses, as well as the strengthen­ing of market laws to control food prices, forestalling (buying products before they reached the market), and engrossing (monopolizing the market with the intent of driving up prices). Immediately upon incorporation, cities and towns from Rhode Island to Louisiana set aside public space and extra wide streets for markets, established market laws, and built protective sheds.

The public market system in Pennsyl­vania during the first half of the nineteenth century was typical for the United States. Market clerks appointed by local governments closely supervised and controlled food retailing in order to protect consumers from spoiled food, as well as merchandise that did not meet standards for weight and volume. Even the location of markets near the town hall or the court house reinforced govern­ment’s responsibility for food retailing. Market sheds, usually built in the middle of broad streets or on public squares, provided minimal protection from the elements, did not require the services of an architect, and could be built quickly and cheaply. They provided access from all sides and, most important for minimizing costs, they were built on public property.

Local governments contracted with builders for market houses but served as the final judges of the quality of con­struction and adherence to the contract. Once city officials approved construction of a new market house, their responsibil­ity for providing food retailing facilities had only just begun. Their greatest challenge was to devise an equitable method of distributing stalls and establishing rents while maximizing a return on their investment.

The market house was not solely a public amenity but also an instrument of social welfare. Revenues from stall rentals supported relief funds for the poor. Market clerks seized articles deficient in weight or measure, as well as meats sold in illegal portions, and donated them to the poor house or the asylum.

Market hours accommodated various social classes. Early in the day, when market opened and prices were higher, middle class patrons made their purchas­es. At the end of the day, when merchants reduced prices and the poor, elderly, widowed, or handicapped were permitted to sell small items from empty stalls, the poorer classes filled the market. Street vending near the markets provided an important opportunity for those who had few options to support themselves or their families. It was common in Philadelphia to see pepper pot vendors, who supplemented family income by dispensing the inexpensive soup from vacant stalls after the market closed. Street vendors proved to be popular subjects of urban folklore and culture, particularly in the early national period, when the trade symbolized the republican virtues of moral, ethical, and equitable trading practices, as well as hard work and good citizenship.

Unique in the early national period was Philadelphia’s reputation for having the longest, cleanest, and most orderly market in the world. This reputation began to wane by mid-century, when loose livestock annoyed pedestrians, and public markets developed a reputation as a haven – if not a breeding ground­ – for prostitutes, alcoholics, and ne’er-do-wells. A growing middle class forced local government officials to consider removing the market sheds.

An even greater threat to public markets in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in Philadelphia, was the realization that streets could be used for more profitable purposes, namely for railroads and streetcars. During the railroad’s first decades, the 1830s and the 1840s, local government, out of respect for the public markets, required railroad companies to lay their tracks around the market houses and to run their trains outside of market hours. Time ran out for street markets in Philadelphia in 1854, however, when the city decided to tear down the famous sheds in the middle of High (now Market) Street in response to a new law that forbade obstruction of the streets. Moreover, the Pennsylvania Railroad wanted Market Street as an avenue to the Delaware River. In anticipation of the removal of the sheds, the city committed one million dollars to purchase land and build four off-street market houses.

Merchants, real estate speculators, and investors saw opportunity in the displacement of the city’s principal marketplace and proposed the creation of private market companies. In an extraordinary defense against the privatization of public markets, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the long-standing right of a municipal corporation to establish and maintain public markets whenever and wherever it saw fit for the public good. In Wartman et al. v. The City of Philadelphia (1854), Chief Justice Jeremiah Black rendered a sage and eloquent opinion.

A municipal corporation, comprising a town of any considerable magnitude, without a public market subject to the regulation of its own local authorities, would be an anomaly which at present has no existence among us and a gross violation of the principle universally conceded to be just, that every community, whether large or small, should be permitted to control, in their own way … the daily supply of food.

Black continued that “such authority in this country is seldom, if ever, vested in individuals.”

By 1859, it had grown quite clear that the corporate form of ownership, with its ability to raise capital with limited personal financial risk, offered w1prece­dented economic opportunities for entrepreneurs in food speculation, marketing, and retailing. Market compa­ny investors argued successfully before a sympathetic state legislature that private effort would be able to achieve what public effort could not. For forty years, from 1859 to 1899, the state legislature authorized the incorporation of 113 companies to erect and operate market houses throughout the Commonwealth. Products of laissez-faire and anti-government sentiment, these market companies, with their legal authority to issue stock, directly competed with the city-owned public markets. This privati­zation marked the beginning of the end of urban food retailing as a public responsibility and of the public market as the social and economic core of the city.

Just five years after Justice Black delivered his opinion on the right of the municipal corporation to establish and maintain public markets, the state legislature incorporated thirteen private market companies to build and operate market houses in Philadelphia.

Judge Reed, deciding in favor of the plaintiff in Twitchell v. The City of Philadel­phia, argued that the city’s “costly outlay for nothing [referring to the city’s plan to build four new public markets at a cost of one million dollars] is now entirely superseded by private corporate enter­prise, which promises to supply the old city proper with well arranged and convenient market-houses.” Before the century ended, the Commonwealth issued charters to an additional thirty­-five companies to operate market houses in Philadelphia alone. Although other states chartered market companies in the second half of the nineteenth century, Pennsylvania was an anomaly in terms of number of companies and because it had eliminated the largest public market in the Commonwealth. In contrast, New York State and Massachusetts incorporat­ed several market companies in the second half of the nineteenth century, but New York City still had its famous Fulton Market and Boston its prized Faneuil Hall.

Philadelphia’s new, privately-owned, mammoth market halls, sometimes called “food department stores,” catered to Victorian era society’s many needs. Markets had earlier been places where one encountered people from all walks of life, but privately-owned markets targeted well-to-do patrons, leaving the municipal markets to the poorer classes.

Incorporation of private market companies in other cities throughout Pennsylvania began immediately after the approval of several Philadelphia private market charters of 1859. In 1860, a charter was issued for the West Harrisburg Market Company. Borough and city council minutes for Harrisburg, however, reveal that local government, not to mention vendors, expressed deeply-felt concerns and anxieties over the privatization movement.

Eventually, competition by the West Harrisburg Market Company and subsequent market companies adversely affected revenues generated by Market Square merchants. Reminiscent of actions in Philadelphia a few decades earlier, the citizens of Harrisburg began to petition the city for the removal of the sheds on the grounds that they were unsightly and destructive to the business interests of both property holders and merchants in the square. Public and political pressure eventually forced marketing on the square to cease on January 19, 1889, and the sheds were torn down in early February. By the turn of the century, Harrisburg’s Market Square, once reserved as a permanent place for bringing together producer and con­sumer, had become a public thoroughfare dedicated to streetcars.

A similar controversy erupted in York, twenty-five miles south of the capital city. Minutes of the city’s Common Council meeting of May 20, 1887, contain a resolution citing the market sheds “greatly interfered with the convenience of public travel, and have become a public nuisance.” Despite claims from butchers and several members of York’s Common and Select Councils, a vote of fourteen to ten on June 27, 1887, resolved that the market sheds in the Centre Square “encroach upon a public highway of the City, thereby greatly impeding and rendering dangerous travel through the said square.” The market sheds were declared a public annoyance, and Mayor D. K. Noell was authorized to have them removed immediately.

The councils also passed a resolution of appreciation to Mayor Noell “for the noble and fearless manner in which he made effective the concurrent resolution for the removal of the market sheds, thereby subserving the will of the people, and ridding the city of that which has so long disgraced its public square and the spot made sacred by many revolutionary memories.”

At year’s end, the mayor reminisced about his role.

Some of these changes and improvements were at the time they were made, especially the removal of the market sheds, quite severely criticized by a few, whose hearts cling fondly to the relics of the past, but the young people, to whom so strongly belongs the spirit of progress, said, “the sheds must go,” and the Mayor obedient to the direction of the Councils, instantly removed them.

In anticipation of luring displaced tenants from Market Square, the Eastern Market Company of York formed and was granted corporation status by the Commonwealth. The concept of privatizing public markets had reached Lancaster in 1873 but the city’s Mayor Stauffer did not buckle to private interests. When the city council passed an ordinance to lease the market squares to a group of investors, the mayor vetoed it on the grounds that if the ordinance were to become law, all of the city’s market property would be taken away and given to a company for a period of ninety-nine years. Furthermore, he chastised council.

Upon what condition is this extraordi­nary grant to be made? What consideration is the City to receive for the transfer of this property? Two thousand dollars a year! The annual revenue from this property nets over five thousand dollars to the City. This ordinance … proposes to give over three thousand dollars of the people’s money every year for a period of ninety-nine years, to a company of private individuals, to erect market buildings. … Is this the time to give away the revenue of the City, when every dollar of the City’s income is so much needed? I see no reason why [the Central Market Company] should have conferred upon it special favors. This money belongs to the public; it is for its use and cannot be given away without perverting the trust for which it is held.

Stauffer, in safeguarding the tradition of markets as a public responsibility, concluded by saying that “if at any time within this period or after it, the citizens of Lancaster want new market buildings, they can erect them as cheap and as good as any company, without the payment of a large bonus.” The veto was sustained and the mayor’s plea for new public markets was borne out in 1889, when public funds built the new Central Market, still in use today.

Unfortunately for the public market tradition in Pennsylvania and other states, voices supporting it were a minority. By the end of the nineteenth century, the municipal market system across the nation teetered in crisis. Most municipal markets were in deplorable condition, populations had shifted, and revenues had plummeted because of competition from private market houses. A sophisticated public that expected tJ,e latest in refrigeration, lighting, and cold storage dismissed market sheds as outmoded. The privatization of public markets also spelled change for vendors who were forced to relocate to shops and storefronts. These purveyors had to adjust their relationships with fellow vendors, suppliers, and a public that no longer strolled through market places.

Public markets that survived the nineteenth century were regarded as obsolete forms of urban food retailing and failed to receive adequate public investment for maintenance and equipment. Major capital, which once went to market houses devoted to retailing, was beginning to shift to wholesale terminal markets. These markets shipped local produce to more distant, but profitable markets­ – sometimes overseas – or they supplied produce to the widely dispersed private food retailing establishments.

Despite political and economic opposition, urban reform movements from the 1890s through the Progressive Era temporarily restored public faith in continued municipal ownership of markets. The biggest boost to public market reform occurred in 1913, when the United States Department of Agricul­ture (USDA) established its Office of Markets (elevated to bureau status in 1917) to improve public markets in cities nationwide.

Encouraged by the USDA and the lead of other states, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture established its own Bureau of Markets in 1917. It took interest in standardizing market houses along the lines of the model market plans established by the national bureau. Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Markets also implemented another USDA recommendation, the curb market, in communities too small to support an enclosed market building. Urban reform, however, came too late to the public market system in Pennsylvania and the rest 0£ the nation to have any lasting effect. By the late 1920s, most curb markets had been discontinued because they were consid­ered a detriment to automobile travel. Other twentieth-century developments and innovations that impinged on public markets included technology – from meat packing, to refrigeration, to large canning operations – that made possible the long-distance marketing of food. Also, the rise of supermarkets began in the 1930s and within twenty years dominated the retail food industry.

In 1920, seventy market houses and sixty-four curb markets were located in thirty-eight counties of Pennsylvania. Today, little more than a dozen extant market houses serve as markets. Despite opposition and obstacles, public markets in Pennsylvania have not completely disappeared. Since 1966, ten market houses in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, and York have been entered in the National Register of Historic Places. Several others are eligible. Recent interest in their preservation indicates a continuing belief by many in the role of public markets in community revitalization and civic pride.

Unlike their private counterparts, municipal markets have long been based on an honorable tradition of shared responsibility, in which the people provide services and goods, regulations come from the local level, and benefits and advantages go directly to the community. As important economic and social institutions, they hold a significant place in the history and, one hopes, the future of Pennsylvania.


For Further Reading

Mayo, James M. The American Grocery Store: The Business Evolution of an Architectural Space. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Spitzer, Theodore Morrow, and Hilary Baum. Public Markets and Community Revitalization. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Land Institute and Project for Public Spaces, Inc., 1995.

Tangires, Helen. “Feeding the Cities: Public Markets and Municipal Reform in the Progressive Era,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration. 29, 16-26 (Spring 1997).

Teaford, Jon C. The Municipal Revolution in America: Origins of Modern Urban Government, 1650-1825. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.


Research for this article was supported by grants from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Library Company of Philadelphia.


Helen Tangires is employed at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. She is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at George Washington University.