|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
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
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.