Baltimore’s public markets are the oldest continuously operating public market system in the United States
maintaining a tradition for which our city is famous. The markets are Baltimore’s oldest institution, older
than it’s health department and even the Mayor’s office.
Some 20 years before the American Revolution, the resident’s of Baltimore saw the need for conducting
market business. When cities such as Baltimore were in their embryonic state, producers and consumers
agreed upon a common meeting place and standard times for trade activities. Once developed, these
actions produced a merchant class that acted as an intermediary between the farmer and the housekeeper.
The idea of a market house was conceived when Baltimore town was only 21 years old in 1751, but the first
market was not completed until 1763 with the aid of a public lottery.
Eventually, there were eleven Baltimore City Public Markets. Each market was originally constructed of
wood and most with a second story used for assembly purposes; armory, political, social, and
entertainment. All have been plagued by fire at some time and are now built mostly of concrete, cinder block
and brick. But the old sawdust on the floor and pickles in the barrel atmosphere still prevails. Four of the
remaining markets are managed for the municipality by the non-profit Baltimore Public Markets Corporation.
There was a time when the markets were the city’s major source of food for the family table. In the early
days the market yards were equipped with stalls, barns and a weighing platform to accommodate the
livestock the farmers brought into town to sell. On the market days farmers came from nearby counties
seeking an outlet for their products. The procession started the night before according to the weather and
the state of the roads, with farmers leaving their homes by horse and wagon and arriving in the early
morning hours. Residents who lived nearby could often hear the rumble of the wheels as the food-laden
caravans passed by. Farmers sold to merchants for resale or sold from their wagons as well as from stalls.
Late last century gas jets spurting flames were introduced as the chief source of indoor illumination. The
outside stalls made do with the flickering light of kerosene lamps which smoked obscenely in the night air
but did keep away the mosquito's. Days were long, with markets opening at light and closing as late as 11
p.m. There was no heat or refrigeration, except for shaved ice.
Baltimore’s Municipal Market System is the oldest continually operating public market system in the United
States. The markets date back to 1765. In 1857, the responsibility for markets was given to the Controller’s
Office. In 1983, the markets started operating under the direction of the Mayor’s Office.
When the Mayor’s Office took over operation of the markets, a Markets Advisory Committee consisting of
three merchants and one City Council member was established to
(1) Investigate market operations and report to the Mayor.
(2) Make recommendations for the Market’s self-sufficiency.
(3) Advise on terms and conditions of leases.
(4) report on the market activities to the City Council.
In March, 1995 Baltimore Public Markets Corporation took over the management of the public markets with
the exception of Lexington Market which is ran by a public-quasi corporation. The character of the markets
has changed drastically over the last two centuries, but they are now, as they have been through the City’s
history, a significant institution that reflects the past and future character of the City’s neighborhoods.
Today you’ll see egg roll combo plates along side soul food and pizza by the slice as well as spring lamb,
dressed beef, steaks, and chops, chicken and eggs and crab meat by the tin next to a wine and cheese
display. Speciality items the chains don’t normally carry like fresh goats milk, freshly ground horseradish or
coconut, tripe, beef tongue, rabbit, and muskrats along with other ethnic specialities, especially around the
holidays, are still found in the markets. Old wicker baskets have given way to plastic shopping bags.
Shoppers still walk to the market as well as drive, with nearby parking facilities added to keep the marketing
experience compatible with modern lifestyles.
Although supermarkets ended a way of life for many, to walk down market aisles surging with people, past
the teeming temptations of artfully displayed produce, romantic blossoms and exotic butcher showcases is
to experience a plethora of unusual sights, scents and the diversity of city life. The markets, while being a
source of life-giving food are also an umbilical cord tying us to the past when life was slow and simpler.
Today the markets are the last stronghold of independent food merchants who trade on personalized service
and the quality of their merchandise in an atmosphere that still reflects the community around it- but the
community has changed, as have the markets.