Baltimore’s Lexington Market is the oldest market in America. Founded in 1782 at the site where it stands today, Lexington has served Baltimore and surrounding communities for more than nine generations. It’s as old as America itself.
A New Market for America
General John Eager Howard, of Revolutionary War fame, donated a portion of his family pasture land to be used as a market. The land lay between what are now Eutaw and Greene Streets, stretching out to the present locations of Baltimore’s Washington Monument and General Howard statue. The site was originally known as the Western Precincts Market, but was soon renamed in memory of the Battle of Lexington, the first battle of the American Revolution.
The market exploded to life, with farmers showing up with goods and produce while the land was nothing but earth and grass. Countless trips to and from the site created roads worn into the land, by hundreds of horse-drawn Conestoga wagons hauling hams, butter, eggs, turkeys, and vegetables. Many farmers would spend all night packing and traveling to make it to Lexington Market by the ringing of the 2 AM opening bell. Wealthier merchants joined these growers, bartering with essentials like grain, hay, farm equipment, and live animals. In 1803, a large shed was built to give some shelter and structure to the growing marketplace.
“By the mid-nineteenth century, it was unquestionably the largest, most famous market on earth.”
“The Gastronomic Capital of the World”
Lexington Market grew by leaps and bounds, sprawling over Lexington Street another block to Greene Street. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was unquestionably the largest, most famous market on earth. During its years of growth, many of America’s most important figures experienced Lexington Market, the 2AM and Noon bells opening and closing the day, every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson passed the vicinity as they rode horseback to and from their Virginia estates and Philadelphia, America’s then capital.
Statesman Daniel Webster visited the market in 1785, and Lexington was written about by artists like painter James McNeill and novelist William Thackeray. When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the Market he proclaimed Baltimore the “Gastronomic capital of the world.”
Growing Market, Growing City
In 1817, Baltimore had grown to encompass the boundaries of Lexington Market, and the city took over its operation. Five years later, The Market was extolled by the visiting United States Attorney General William Wirt, who wrote excitedly to his daughter in Washington that: “You may conceive the vast quantity of provisions that must be brought to this market when you are told that 60,000 people draw their daily supplies from it, which is more than twice as many people as there are in Washington, Georgetown, Alexandria, and Richmond, all in one.”
Growth of Baltimore Town up and over Howard’s Hill made it the nation’s second largest city. Turnpikes linked it to Harrisburg and Richmond, with lines of wagon teams rumbling north and south to this bustling junction of bay, canal, and turnpike. Lexington Market was the hub. From Pennsylvania, Cumberland, and Virginia, countrymen traveled three and four days to hawk their butter, winter apples, handknit socks, yarn gloves, and hams.
From Civil War to 20th Century
After the Civil War, and through the turn of the 20th century, Lexington Market was a recognized social center for the most democratic traditions. Social leaders exchanged gossip about current news and produce prices. Street singers, musicians, fortune tellers, and evangelists competed with soap box economists for shoppers’ attention. Gourmet dining took place at oilcloth-covered tables amidst teeming aisles. As new tides of immigration swept into the city, Lexington Market acquired new blood, with new stall keepers offering exotic foods over their counters.
By 1925, there were over 1,000 stalls under 3 block-long sheds. There were just as many stands and carts outside, and traffic had become a problem. “Lexington Market must go,” declared an exasperated Mayor Preston in 1912, “whether the tenants desire it or not!” But Lexington Market refused to go, despite many attacks.
Though street stalls were banned by Mayor Jackson’s Traffic Committee in 1935. They not only survived but seemed to multiply with the publicity. In 1937, there was a movement to replace the old buildings with something new and modem, but the plans stayed on the drawing board until 1949. Then, what civic leaders seemed unable to do in a decade happened overnight. A six-alarm fire raged through the main buildings, destroying $2,000,000 worth of merchandise, and $500,000 in stalls and equipment.