The American Farmers Market
Gastronomica, Summer, 2002


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Then, in the mid-1700s, came a critical shift. As urban areas flourished, consumer power grew exponentially, tipping the delicate balance of interdependence between customers and suppliers. Growth did cause an increased demand for food, creating more selling opportunities, but in these changing versions of the old markets, the customer became top priority. As was proclaimed by the Common Council of the City of New York on August 23, 1763: “The markets are Intended for the Benefitt of House Keeper’s who buy for their own use.”

Although the markets themselves prospered from this kind of official consideration, individual growers suffered. Developing cities moved their markets to newly built sheds, where selling took place only at certain times on certain days. The resulting concentration of sellers was less profitable for the itinerant farmer than for the growing ranks of middlemen, who seized the opportunity to set up semi-permanent businesses within the new buildings. Those who still sold on the street (because cost or space excluded them from the sheds or because they couldn’t make a profit in the glutted market there) faced smear campaigns that represented their food as unclean. Initially, cities issued regulations intended to protect individual farmers, but as the ranks of “House Keeper’s” grew, these regulations were eased in order to attract to the city a sufficient supply of food, regardless of its origin.

For those who continued to sell at market, the opportunities increased: burgeoning cities meant bustling markets; and improved transportation, especially in the form of railroads, meant greater accessibility. Whereas getting to Philadelphia might once have taken a half-day by wagon, it might now take only an hour. Likewise, those who had lived far from the big markets could now sell their goods there, turning greater profits than they would in the country.

At the same time, railroads and waterways, now navigable from the Atlantic to Duluth, freed cities from their dependence on the immediate countryside—even the surrounding region—for food. In 1830, travel writer Anna Royall described the Charleston Market as selling “all the nuts of the globe” and volumes of “West India fruit,” including lemons, bananas, and oranges. By 1870, when a refrigerated railroad car first carried vegetables and fresh salmon from the Pacific to Chicago, supply was no longer limited to food in season and not yet sold or spoiled that day.

The markets, too, were swept up in the national trend toward efficiency and progress. By the 1850s, sheds had been abandoned or demolished and grand halls built, and efforts were made to improve sanitation and fairness in selling. Despite these changes, though, the markets were losing public favor. As urban populations reached a tipping point, vibrancy gave way to overcrowding and filth. Fresh food was blamed for dreaded diseases, including cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Although the truth of these claims was not easily proved, food was in fact more likely to spoil before it reached urban tables, as growers were now located increasingly far from the city and middlemen were usually handling their goods.

Thus the climate was perfect for the advent of industrial food preservation and distribution. Starting with elementary designs in the 1830s, canned foods gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century. Selling them were the newly established grocery stores, which could finally be supported by the critical masses of burgeoning city populations. Supplied by food processors, packagers, and wholesalers by way of refrigerated railway cars, grocery stores embodied the modernity for which America yearned.

Farmers markets, on the other hand, were regarded as deadweight from the past. As historian and Philadelphia market manager David O’Neil explains, “Baskets of onions and hanging sides of beef were a filthy reminder of a past that was no longer considered useful.” The markets tried to keep up, instituting stricter rules governing food handling and sanitation. And through the next half-century, markets continued to be part of city life, especially in smaller towns and in the West. (Seattle’s Pike Place Market reportedly opened in 1907 with eight farmers and ten thousand shoppers—and everyone sold out by eleven a.m.) By the turn of the twentieth century, though, the bond between farmer and consumer had been replaced by the desire for almighty Convenience. The heyday was over.

 

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