Thursday, April 16, 2009

To Market

I am a foodie. I like to cook with Sea Salt. You will not find Velveeta in my fridge. “Imitation vanilla flavoring” may as well be considered profane language. Since moving to DC, I’ve come to appreciate the weekend farmer’s market scene, be it in Eastern Market, Dupont Circle or Arlington. I get inspired by DC Foodies' rundowns on local markets around town. With anticipation of the summer months, when the market will be booming with vendors, today’s topic is the Center Market on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Opening to vendors in 1801 with the encouragement of President Jefferson, the Center Market
was the primary location of commerce in this Tidewater Town. To get the best produce and meat, you had to get their early in the morning and be willing to pay a higher cost. As the day progressed, prices dropped until the market closed in the mid-afternoon. Farmers from Virginia and Maryland occupied the outer, less expensive stalls to sell corn, potatoes, and apples. Early transportation of goods was done on horseback. In his Early Recollections of Washington City, DC-native Christian Hines (1781-1875) described the transportation of tobacco:

The hogshead containing the tobacco, had a hole bored in each head, and an axle run through from one end to the other. To this axle a shaft was attached something like the shaft of a cart. To this the horse was hitched and the tobacco brought to town, up and down hills, over stones, &c. It looked precisely like the roller with which the streets are now rolled.

By the 1830s the Center Market played a significant role in the lives of African-American slaves. Unlike those on the plantation who worked dawn to dusk, slaves living in the cities often worked on a task system. A task system afforded slaves free time once their chores had been completed for their master—free time which could be used to plant a small garden and sell the produce at market. Money earned went toward purchasing freedom.

Starting as an open-air market, an indoor structure two blocks long was built in 1871 to accommodate over 700 vendors, with an additional 300 in stalls outside (at left: outside vendors sell goods, c. 1900). Improved railways and railcars brought oranges from Florida and beef from the Midwest. A streetcar stop carried customers. But as the nation and government grew, the government found a pressing need to protect the rapidly deteriorating documents of our past. Sitting on a prime location on Penn Ave, the market was demolished in 1931, and the National Archives took its place.

Sources: Cultural Tourism DC, African-American Heritage Trail Database, “National Archives/ Center Market”.

Christian Hines,

Early Recollections of Washington City.

National Museum of American History, America on the Move,
"A Streetcar City".

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