Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
Market Research

History suggests that public food markets, more than just a place to buy local goods, are part of a city's moral economy.

By Dale Keiger

Opening photo: Market historian Helen Tangires loves to do her weekly shopping at the Dupont Circle farmers' market in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Sam Kittner
Helen Tangires, A&S '78, recalls getting to work each day at the Blue Top Diner before 5 in the morning. The Blue Top was at Boston Street and Montford Avenue in Baltimore, maybe 100 yards from the harbor waterfront. It had 10 stools and a tall sign topped by a mustachioed gent in a chef's toque making the OK sign with his left hand. Tangires' father, Bill Tangires, owned the place. He also owned 21 lunch wagons, Chevy step vans that purveyed breakfast and lunch to workers all over the city. Helen began working on the wagons in the early 1970s when she was 16, and two years later she got her own route. The wagons were full kitchens on wheels with grills, coffee urns, steam tables, coolers, and provisions on board. Tangires remembers the pre-dawn routine at the diner: "We'd ice up the truck, make coffee, get the grill hot, and get all the food and sodas onto the truck. Our first stop would be, like, 5 in the morning. I was a short-order cook. If you wanted a fried-egg sandwich, I fried the egg right there on the truck." She would slide some of those eggs over grilled Polish sausages and serve them with 16-ounce pineapple sodas — breakfast for hungry men at construction sites.

Construction provided plenty of trade. In the mid-1950s, Tangires' father fed workers building the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. She remembers working the site of the massive post office at Fayette Street. Another stop was the excavation for the National Aquarium. One summer, her route took her to the Baltimore shipyards. "It's really an unusual experience to pull a lunch wagon up to a dock where there's a huge container ship unloading. I liked it because you were in the shade of the ship." A lunch wagon was hot work. "It had to be every bit of 100 degrees in there."

In 1978, Tangires graduated from Johns Hopkins with a degree in art history and went to work for the Cloisters Children's Museum in Brooklandville, Maryland. But she never got the food service business out of her system. In the mid-1980s, by that time living in Texas with her husband, Dennis McDaniel, she kept in touch with relatives by gathering family history. "With so many Greek relatives in the restaurant business and related trades, a business history emerged from their stories," she says. "So I decided to write a history of the lunch wagon business." That history appeared in the Journal of American Culture, and for Tangires it was just the beginning. Her exploration of the historical literature pulled her into deeper reading about how cities feed their residents, and somewhere along the way, she became a self-confessed nut about public food markets. The architecture of market houses fascinated her. So did early American ordinances that mandated those facilities and regulated the commerce conducted there. Eighteenth-century local governments thought municipal food markets were important. By the middle of the next century, they were changing their minds. Why? The deeper Tangires probed, the more her interest in the subject grew.

Nearly 20 years later, she has written two books on the history of American food markets, with a third in progress. In 2003, she published Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press). This year, the Library of Congress brought out Public Markets (Norton/Library of Congress), a collection of historical photographs with text by Tangires. She's researching a follow-up to her first book that will examine markets and the rise of food wholesaling in the 20th century.

To her, markets are more than just a place for city residents to buy food. They are part of a community's moral economy. In cities where chain grocery stores have left the urban core for the suburbs, markets give city residents access to fresh food, and they help sustain local farmers. Markets are democratic spaces where people from all walks of life mingle, air their grievances, and enjoy what they have in common. "There are always going to be new forms of private food retailing," Tangires says. "But it's important to sustain these [public] places."

Late on a Friday morning in May, Baltimore's Lexington Market bustles. Vendors have worked this site since 1782. For its first 20 years it was just an open area where on market day farmers parked wagons laden with produce to sell. Now it's housed in a huge building at Paca and Lexington streets, and a smaller adjacent structure called the West Market. Six days a week, every manner of Baltimorean walks the floor and ponders every manner of comestible. Here is the Buttercup Bakery, Angie's Soul Food, and Sandwich King. Over there is Han's Produce, Garden Produce, and Lefty's Produce. Harbor City Deli, Sheppard's Deli, Station Deli, Mother's Deli. Little Texas, Polock Johnny's, Ichi Ban Yaki, Mt. Olympus Gyros, and Italian Stallion. Mediterranean food at Pandora's Box, chitlins and hog maws at Amos Meats, cheese danish at Muhly's, smoked jowls and pig tails at Buffalo Bill's II.

Markets are democratic spaces where people from all walks of life mingle, air their grievances, and enjoy what they have in common.
The centerpiece of Lexington Market is Faidley's Seafood. Lake trout, tilapia, butterfish, catfish, rockfish, steakfish, split shad, shad roe, frog's legs, hardheads, sea bass, bluefish, blue crabs, white perch, orange roughy, rainbow trout. Bill Devine has worked here for 50 years. "Showed up here on a blind date," Devine says. Then he adds, deadpan, "I sleep with Nancy Faidley." Nancy is the fifth generation Faidley to run the place, and she was the blind date, now Devine's wife. After a stint in the Navy, Devine joined the business and seems to enjoy talking about it. He shows off a display of press clippings about the company, explains that "steakfish" is actually hake, and complains that the market for raccoon — not exactly seafood but nevertheless for sale at Faidley's for $19.95 each, two for $39 — keeps shrinking. "People on the Eastern Shore eat them. Always did. Still do. But the sales of muskrat and raccoon each year dwindle because those people are dying off."

Faidley's does a brisk lunch business, and Tangires orders a fried steakfish-that's-really-hake sandwich and agrees to share a can of National Bohemian beer. She likes Lexington Market. The wet bricks and pavement, the smell of propane from the fry tanks, the give-and-take of commerce all remind her of her family's diner and lunch wagons. She enjoys reading the signs, checking the prices, noting what's for sale that tells her she's in Baltimore — you don't find Polock Johnny's Polish sausages anywhere else — and getting a feel for how the city is doing. She says, "If I see a market that seems to be well run, thriving, crowded, organized, and well supplied, that says something to me about the larger environment of the city."

Tangires and her husband came back east to Washington in 1987 when she was hired by the National Gallery of Art's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, where she is currently an administrator. Across the street from the National Gallery is the National Archives, which had been built on the site of the old Center Market. In the 1870s, Center Market was one of the largest public food markets in the country, more than 50,000 square feet. Tangires became interested in its history. She combed the visual and textual records of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Archives. The more she found, the more her interest grew, and finally she enrolled in the American studies doctoral program at George Washington University. For the subject of her PhD dissertation, she chose 19th-century American markets, and that research became the core of her first book.

Joseph Severio (at right in photo) sold peanuts in Wilmington, Delaware, in the early 1900s.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
She learned that for cities and towns in colonial America, markets were a municipal responsibility. "In addition to building wharves, docks, bridges, and roads, local government was expected to provide facilities for buying and selling food," she wrote in Public Markets and Civic Culture. "These facilities were more than a mere convenience; it was the duty of the state to ensure that the urban populace would have an adequate, wholesome, and affordable supply of necessities."

Eighteenth-century city planners placed market sheds, or simply designated open-air market space, in town squares or the middle of thoroughfares. They chose land already publicly owned and accessible by road or water. Often they used marshy ground, if there was any, because it was not valued by investors or developers and was ideal as a place to dump waste. Sometimes civic-minded, or profit-minded, individuals provided land. Baltimore's Lexington Market bills itself as "the world's largest continuously running market for more than six generations" on land donated by John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War hero, "on his return from the war." Tangires found a 1952 master's thesis by a Penn State student, David Osborne, that proved Howard actually had leased the land to the city in 1804 for an annual payment of $228 in gold and silver. The city paid Howard and his heirs for 99 years.

Municipal authorities passed market ordinances designed to maintain a fair, orderly, hygienic system for vending food to the public. Farmers were not allowed to sell anywhere else in the city. The government set hours of operation, assigned stalls, regulated weights and measures, inspected meat and poultry for spoilage, imposed and collected fines, and guarded against illicit activities such as forestalling (buying goods before they could reach the open market), regrating (buying goods with intent to resell), or engrossing (hoarding goods to create artificial scarcity). Customers were regulated, too. Market laws prohibited drunken behavior or loitering. An 1835 ordinance in St. Louis forbade "drunk [sic], fighting, quarreling, reviling, threatening, swearing, blackguarding, pilfering, stealing, robbing, cheating, swindling, or disturbing the good people."

A pushcart market on Mulberry Street in New York City, circa 1900.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Farmers brought their produce to market by road. Fishermen preferred to come in by water. Near Washington's Center Market, fishmongers kept their catches swimming in special tanks floating on the canal. Livestock and even some poultry walked to market, urged on by drovers. In the autumn of 1810, drovers guided an estimated 40,000 pigs from Ohio to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other eastern cities. One young drover in 1828 somehow managed to walk a thousand turkeys from Petersburg, Ohio, to Pittsburgh, a distance of more than 50 miles. Turkey drovers would first walk their birds through warm asphalt to coat their feet — turkey shoes.

As cities grew in the early 19th century, they erected bigger market houses. Boston built Faneuil Hall with $1 million in public funds, the equivalent of more than $18 million today. St. Louis built Union Market, Philadelphia built Reading Market, New York built Washington Market and Tompkins Market and Fulton Fish Market. By the mid-1800s, public markets were ubiquitous, centers not just of trade but of politics and civic discourse. They were where country people mixed with city people, races and nationalities met over commerce, and a new urban population found sustenance.

In Public Markets and Civic Culture, Tangires describes how starting around 1840 cities began to question whether they should be in the food retailing business. From colonial times, few had disputed city government's role in providing and regulating food markets. But mid-19th century laissez-faire ideology began to influence governments in the United States and European cities. Says Tangires, "The coming of the railroads plays a role, too. They move food around, and once you start moving food in a different way, then the normal channels of distribution are challenged. As cities grew, I think they began to ask whether space and public resources should go into expanding the market system, or would those resources be better spent on other kinds of amenities? Cities still built bridges. They still built roads. But they began to think maybe they didn't need to spend all this money building these places because we could best leave that to private enterprise."

Markets continued to function in some cities, but the supermarket became the retailer-of-choice in America. Washington tore down Center Market in 1931. Other cities did the same, or turned their markets over to private owners. Government stayed involved in food distribution by beginning to build and operate massive regional food wholesale centers, but those were state and federal operations. Municipalities had lost their enthusiasm for vending produce, steakfish, and hog maws.

Many cities — including Atlanta, Seattle, and New Orleans — continue to support city-wide public market systems. Others, like Little Rock, Arkansas; Toledo, Ohio; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have developed new market facilities. But the burgeoning market movement throughout the country is farmers' markets. Gus Schumacher, an advocate of farmers' markets, used to be undersecretary for farm and foreign agriculture service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He says that 25 years ago, there were about 350 farmers' markets in the United States. Now there are more than 4,500, with more popping up each week.

"The whole healthy food movement has a lot going against it. When was the last time you saw a billboard promoting fresh kale?" In many communities, the drive wheels have been nonprofit institutions like the Interfaith Hunger Coalition in Los Angeles and the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence, Rhode Island. Universities, including Duke, Harvard, Syracuse, and Brown, have begun hosting markets on their campuses, in several cases as part of their food services operations. (Hopkins students at the Homewood campus frequent the 32nd Street Market in the nearby neighborhood of Waverley.) Freshfarms Markets, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has organized eight markets in Washington, Annapolis, and Baltimore. Freshfarms co-director Ann Yonkers says, "I think we've left food production to the 'professionals' and wound up with an industrialized system that does not serve us particularly well. There's an abundance of food, but a lot of what's important to human beings has been lost, such as flavor and freshness. We've lost a connection to farmers and a sense of place and community. We rediscover these at farmers' markets."

David K. O'Neil, an international market consultant for the Project for Public Spaces, observes, "A market is a form of creating energy, all those little moments, those little flashes of silver and gold in a market in the hand-to-hand economy. You can shop anywhere today. You can stay at home and shop on the Internet. But the old-fashioned marketplace is more satisfying. We're always looking for life. There's life in the market, and it's our life."

The ideals behind farmers' markets vary. Public health advocates want to get more fresh produce on to the dinner plates of the tens of millions of Americans who are obese, hypertensive, and diabetic. (The health-care organization Kaiser Permanente now sponsors more than 25 farmers' markets in six states.) Urban activists want inner-city residents, especially in poorer neighborhoods, to have access to affordable, wholesome food. Communitarians want to foster a greater sense of community life, and sustain local farms and independent merchants. Environmentalists want to promote alternatives to environmentally destructive factory farming and a food system that consumes vast quantities of fossil fuels to stock grocery stores on the East Coast with produce grown on the West Coast or New Zealand or Chile.

On the consumer side, farmers' markets are supported by shoppers who want fresh, seasonal, locally produced food. They are concerned with good nutrition, good flavor, and food safety. They want to know where their tomatoes or spinach or eggs came from. That's no guarantee of safety from E. coli or Salmonella, but O'Neil says, "at least people like the accountability and directness of the local market option."

Baltimore's Lexington Market, pictured around 1910.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Finally, farmers like neighborhood markets because they can sell directly to their customers and eliminate the middleman. Schumacher points out how much better a farmer can do selling at a local market. "For a Maryland grower to sell wholesale, he might get $10 for a box of apples. Go to a farmers' market and he'll get $60. He may wait 30 days or more to get his money from a supermarket. At a farmers' market he gets cash. It's a no-brainer."

Advocates argue that farmers' markets benefit everyone involved. O'Neil says, "If you want to start a business, the start-up costs in a market are really affordable. You just need a good idea and a product, and you can rent a stall in a market on a temporary basis to get something going. That opens a huge door in cities for a whole new class of entrepreneurs." A 2003 Ford Foundation study, Public Markets as a Vehicle for Social Integration and Upward Mobility, noted that 83 percent of the vendors it surveyed had been able to start up their market operations for less than $1,000.

Nevertheless, ideals sometimes collide with behavioral and economic realities. Many markets in urban neighborhoods don't make it. The Ford Foundation study notes, "Southland Farmers' Market Association in Los Angeles found that 30 percent of new farmers' markets failed in California, and those established in low-income areas were even more likely to fail. They also found great disparity in gross revenues in markets in low-income communities versus middle-income communities: a South Central LA market grosses $200,000 a year (and declining) compared with over $3.7 million (and increasing) in Santa Monica." Furthermore, providing access to nutritious food does not guarantee that the people who need it most will buy it. O'Neil says, "The market movement, for the most part, has been rooted in well-educated, better-income areas and has not done nearly as good a job at penetrating lower income, at-risk neighborhoods."

City governments are not always enthusiastic partners, says Schumacher. "The community testifies before local government and says, 'We want a farmers' market,' and then local government gets grouchy and says, 'All right, OK, maybe. What about clean-up? Traffic? Police details?' Every one is a battle. You may recall, 20 years ago the McDonald's business mantra was to have a McDonald's within 20 minutes of every child in America. Do you see cities putting a farmers' market within 20 minutes of every child? I don't think so."

Tangires' grandfather built Jim's Lunch from old crates.
Photo courtesy National Archives.

Tangires shies from entering the conversation about fresh food markets and American dietary habits. As a scholar, she's careful about making comments outside her area of expertise; she's much more comfortable talking about the architecture of 19th-century market houses than the expanding waistlines of 21st-century Americans. She endorses providing city residents with sources of fresh, nutritious food within walking distance of wherever they live, but acknowledges the power and reach of advertising that steers the public toward the fast-food counter. "The whole healthy food movement has a lot going against it in our society," she says. "When was the last time you saw a billboard promoting fresh kale?"

In June, Tangires spent two weeks in southern Burgundy, living in a house near the village of Uxeau in Sa˘ne-et-Loire. She has been traveling to France for research purposes and pleasure since 1991, and visits markets wherever she goes. On her latest trip, Thursday was market day in Gueugnon, and the market was busy. "People feel very committed to that kind of shopping," she says. "When it's market day, everybody in town seems to be there." She and her husband would go to the market with their own carton for eggs, which are sold in bulk, and a jar "because the roasted chicken guy for free will give you as much of the juice off the chickens as you want to take home for stock." There was always an extraordinary selection of cheeses, and vendors selling not just meats and produce but clothing and pocketbooks and the oilcloth used to cover tables in France.

Tangires can succinctly tick off all the virtues that draw her to markets, whether they be in Burgundy or Baltimore: "Price. Quality. Quantity. Variety. Community." Plus, they are in her blood. Baltimore's main market for fresh produce used to be Center Market, near the corner of Harrison and Baltimore streets. The land for it had to be dredged in the 1780s when it was first laid out, so it was popularly called Marsh Market. There, around 1938, Tangires' grandfather built a lunch stand from old crates under the market's rear sheds. One day in the National Archives, she found a photo taken near the Marsh Market and there, in the background, was Jim's Lunch — her grandfather's stand. Jim's depended on business from migrant laborers who hung around the market looking for work. In the 1950s, Baltimore passed an anti-loitering ordinance that, Tangires says, chased away the migrant workers and put Jim's out of business. She remembers her father telling him, "Pop, if the customers can't come to us, we'll go to them," which was the genesis of the family's lunch wagon business.

In the introduction to Public Markets and Civic Culture, Tangires admits that when she began the book, she assumed that like her grandfather's lunch stand, public food markets had all but disappeared in the United States. She was more than happy to learn that she was wrong. The markets were out there, even making a comeback in some cities. "It's such a practical system," she says. "I can see it working in the 21st century as it has since antiquity."

Dale Keiger is associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Return to September 2008 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | 901 S. Bond St. | Suite 540 | Baltimore, MD 21231
Phone 443-287-9900 | Fax 443-287-9898 | E-mail