The Food Market Bubble of 1859

Dock Street - Fish Market. April 28, 1914 (
Dock Street – Fish Market. April 28, 1914 (

“The completion of the market between the two rivers will probably take place in the present generation,” wrote an anonymous commentator in 1809, adding “a uniform, open arcade mathematically straight, two miles in length, perfect in its symmetry… will never be a contemptible object.”

But the coming generation of Philadelphians wouldn’t be so patient, or appreciative, of the vision for an urban village. While the anonymous writer worried some “pragmatical architect” might come along and “destroy this symmetry, by adopting new dimensions as to height or breadth, and taking a different curve for his arch,” the public had moved on, to the position of total demolition.

By the middle of the 19th-century, many Philadelphians had come to recognize that the city’s spine of market sheds was a vestige of a 1680s vision for a “country town” and little more than “a time-honored nuisance.” By 1850, the population would exceed 120,000 and a few years later the two-square mile city would consolidate to become one and the same with the 159-square mile county. By 1900, Philadelphia’s population would explode to nearly 1.3 million. That would demand sweeping transformation of how this sprawling, modernizing city would supply itself with victuals.  As historian Helen Tangires put it: squat, quaint, open-air markets had “no place in the emerging vision.”

That vision demanded an entirely new type of building: spacious market halls with soaring arched ceilings made possible by modern trusses accommodating hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers. These market halls would join the repertoire of large urban building types: city halls, schools, museums, libraries, theaters, factories, train sheds and depots. They’d play a distinct role, explains Tangires, in a 19th-century “moral economy” where government and private interests collaborated to support the community’s social, political and physical well-being. And Philadelphia, as it so happened, provided perfect conditions for this market movement to flourish.

Western Market, Market Street at 16th northeast corner, ca. 1859 ( Library of Philadelphia Print and Pictures Department)
Western Market, Northeast corner of 16th and Market Streets, ca. 1859 ( Library of Philadelphia Print and Pictures Department)

Four years after consolidation, “in the wake of the demolition” of Market Street’s old sheds, writes Tangires, 17 market companies were incorporated in the city, leading to a period of “unparalleled construction.” Each new corporation issuing stock meant another “unprecedented opportunity for speculation in food retailing,” another new hall with “the latest innovations in refrigeration, lighting, ventilation, and construction.”  Philadelphia’s “market house company mania” turned out an impressive collection of state-of-the art “market palaces.”

One by one, they opened with celebrations. At the northeast corner of 16th and Market Streets in April, 1859, architect John M. GriesWestern Market Company invited in the public and received praise for its arched roof and clerestory above a 170-by-150-foot interior with “280 stalls with Italian marble counter tops” divided by commodious aisles. At each end were galleries devoted to “the sale of flowers, seeds, and ice cream.” Iron-framed doors with “wicker inserts for air circulation lined the entire perimeter.”

Seven blocks away, an auction of 431 vendor stalls at the Eastern Market, a 300-by-100-foot-hall at 5th and Commerce Streets, brought higher prices than expected, spurring more confidence and investment citywide. When the Eastern Market opened in November, 1859, a company of top-hatted hosts served a feast in the center of the main floor.

Center City would have its share of new market houses and so would neighborhoods that only a few years before were beyond the city proper. The Fairmount Market Company, incorporated in March, 1859, raised $100,000 by selling two thousand shares at fifty dollars apiece.  Before long, they started building a 100-by 300-foot hall at the northwest corner of 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Pennsylvania Avenue, West from Hamilton Street and 21st, October 25, 1900 (
Pennsylvania Avenue at 22nd Street, October 25, 1900 (

Throughout the city, from Northern Liberties to Point Breeze, from West Philadelphia to Germantown, the city’s appetites launched a golden age of market construction. And that was only the first round. “The market house company mania that began in Philadelphia in 1859 continued unabated through the rest of the state particularly during 1870s and 1880s,” writes Tangires. “They grew up like mushrooms in every part of the city.” In North Philadelphia alone, market halls cropped up at 9th & Girard, 10th & Montgomery, Broad & Columbia (Cecil B. Moore), 17th & Venango, 18th & Ridge, and 20th & Oxford—to mention but a few of the 39 listed in a City Directory from 1901.

A glorious tradition. And an unsustainable one. “Too numerous and costly,” observed Thomas De Voe as early as 1862, citing “false confidence,” false starts and early failures due to “overcapitalized and highly speculative” market halls. The Franklin Market at 10th and Marble (now Ludlow) was soon re-purposed as the Mercantile Library. Neither the Eastern nor the Western Markets survived. Nor did the Fairmount Market. Not one of Philadelphia’s soaring halls survive. Gone are the Black Horse, the Union, the Fidelity, the Globe, the Red Star and the Red Lion. Could it be that the Green Hill Market at 17th and Poplar stands as the city’s last remaining hall of those chartered in 1859?

Ask anyone today about the city’s great food halls and they’ll point you to the Reading Terminal Market, a street-level emporium under the 1892 train shed at 12th and Filbert Streets. It stands where not one, but two of the grand, original market halls once stood, side by side, in the heady days of Philadelphia’s “market mania.”

Architecturally, it’s the result of a steep compromise. But it’s also a proud, lone survivor.

[Sources include: “Some Account of the Markets of Philadelphia,” The Port Folio, (1809), pp. 508-511; Helen Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and “Public Markets,” The Encyclopedia of Greater PhiladelphiaLaws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania, Passed at the Session of 1859 (Harrisburg, 1859); A Digest of Titles of Corporations Chartered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania, Between the Years 1700 and 1873 Inclusive (Philadelphia: J. Campbell & Son, 1874); Gospill’s Philadelphia City Directory for 1901 (Philadelphia: James Gospill’s Sons, 1901).]