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Baltimore’s Public Markets
By John Gentry

Baltimore’s historic public markets form an important part of the city’s rich heritage. From their architecture to their role in the community, these sites contribute to local identity and continue a long-standing tradition of public markets in America. Consisting of both original and reconstructed buildings, today the city’s historic markets offer both locals and visitors a unique shopping experience and the opportunity to support local farmers, vendors, and artists. 

Baltimore’s public markets are the perfect place to stock up on fresh crab cakes, produce, and other delicacies, but they also reflect an old tradition in the west, whose origins lie in the classical civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, and later, in medieval Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, markets dramatically evolved as an architectural form and social institution during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The architectural transformation that occurred in American market design is well represented in Baltimore, and some of the earliest public markets in the United States were built here. The city’s first market was built in 1763 at the corner of Baltimore and Gay streets, its construction financed by a public lottery. Baltimore’s market system continued to expand, and as the city’s population grew during the first half of the 19th century, a number of block-long, enclosed market sheds were built down the middle of its major streets. Multi-story market houses were often added onto these structures, and Hollins Market survives as one of the finest examples of this type in the country. In addition to Hollins, the Broadway and Cross Street markets also serve as good examples of the early combination street shed-market house. While these two markets have been rebuilt in recent years, they still retain the shed-like form, original location, and overall footprint of the originals.­­

By the second half of the 19th century, the street-based market sheds were no longer the principal type of market being built in America. Rather, cities across the country were erecting impressive, free-standing brick market halls on city lots, and these buildings usually featured open, lofty interiors. These markets incorporated the latest in building technology and reflected 19th-century social norms regarding the function and character of public spaces. The former Richmond Market, which today houses part of Maryland General Hospital, exhibits the rectangular plan and bold exterior arches that are characteristic of this type.     

Just as today, Baltimore’s public markets were owned and operated by the city, and the daily operation of these facilities was guided by local market laws. Regulations prevented abuses such as the resale of products bought in the market from farmers, and the hoarding of supplies in order to drive up prices. City officials made sure that weights and measures were accurate, standardized, and fair, and market ordinances also strove to maintain an orderly, safe, and sanitary environment for shoppers. State legislatures granted towns and cities the authority to draft and adopt these market laws. In November 1784, the state of Maryland transferred this regulatory authority to the city of Baltimore, which allowed for “establishing new markets and building market houses in Baltimore Town, and for the regulation of said markets.”

In Baltimore, as in other historic American cities, markets served and continue to be economic and social focal points within the community. They were and are vibrant public spaces where the city’s diverse population interacts daily.  

Baltimore’s public markets provided business opportunities for generations of immigrant merchants and vendors, and the city’s markets acted as a catalyst that stimulated growth in the commercial districts that grew up around them. During the 19th century, Lexington Market served as the economic foundation from which the city’s principal mercantile and retail district rapidly developed. 

Baltimore’s public markets functioned in a variety of roles, and each acted as part of an integrated system for food distribution. In the city’s multi-story market houses, market activities were usually located on the ground floor, with the second floor containing a mix of uses that ranged from government offices, to armories and meeting halls. Typical of these mixed-use facilities, Baltimore’s Hollins Market contains a meeting hall on the second floor of its large, two-story brick market house, which was constructed in 1864. Newspaper sources from the early 20th century suggest that the second floor hall was regularly used as a meeting space for various local political campaigns, groups, and clubs. Lectures were also held at the hall, such as Dr. Quincy Adams’ 1908 address “Art in the Streets of European and American Cities.” In addition to this mixed-use tradition, Baltimore’s market system, as in the other major cities of the 19th century, consisted of a central downtown wholesale market, located on the waterfront, and a network of “satellite” neighborhood markets. In Baltimore, the old Marsh Market, most of which burned in the Great Fire of 1904, supplied the more “neighborhood” venues, such as the Cross Street and Hollins markets.       

Baltimore’s historic public markets continue to function in their traditional role as the economic, social, and cultural heart of the city’s neighborhoods. Today, visitors can still experience the sights, smells, and culinary variety of these colorful public markets, while celebrating Baltimore’s proud role as one of America’s most historic cities.     

Discover more about the markets with a heritage area virtual itinerary. [LINK]

For an annotated version of this article, click here. [LINK TO PDF]

John Gentry is a historian and preservationist whose interests include architecture, urban history, sustainability, and planning.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from DePaul University in Chicago and a Master of Historic Preservation from the University of Maryland (UMd).  His final project at UMd was A Sustaining Heritage: Historic Markets, Public Space, and Community Revitalization. 



An article published in Collier’s magazine in 1912 describes a typical market day scene at Lexington Market:


Throughout the morning street cars pour out their loads at the bottom of the hill on which the market is set. Half a block below its overflow has spilled down the hill, and ranged on both sides of the street are piles of flowers, plants, and fruit, with busy sellers calling and with those touches of color that make a happy approach to the show. Up on the hill the market straddles the bisecting street, and all around are more open stalls. Every space is taken up, and the crowds wind in and out of the mazes of benches, boxes, baskets, and people.

Lexington Market in 1912
Lexington Market in 1912

An article published in Collier’s magazine in 1912 describes a typical market day scene at Lexington Market: Throughout the morning street cars pour out their loads at the bottom of the hill on which the market is set. Half a block

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