Curbstone Markets and the Farm-To-Table Movement

In his “Midnight Soliloquy in the Market House of Philadelphia,” Philip Freneau observed:

The market house, like the grave, is a place of perfect equality. None think of themselves too mighty to be seen here, nor are there any so mean as to be excluded. Here you may see (at the proper hour) the whig and the tory – the Churchman and the Quaker – the Methodist and the Presbyterian—the moderate man and the violent—the timorous and the brave—the modest and the impudent—the chaste and the lewd, the philosopher and the simpleton – the blooming lass of fifteen, and the withered matron of sixty—the man worth two pence, and he of a hundred thousand pounds—the huxter with a paper of pins, and the merchant who deals in the produce of both the Indies—the silly politician who has schemed and written himself blind for the service of his country, and the author who wears a fine coat, and is paid to profusion for writing nothing at all!

Curbstone Market, 16th and Federal Streets in 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

That was 1782. More than a century and a quarter later, expressions of democratic market life continued to thrive in Philadelphia.

“The curbstone market was a busy scene this morning. Well-gowned women rubbed elbows with the poor housewife in shawl and wrapper, and many of the former learned a few points from the poor woman’s method of buying. While there are no marble counters and spotlessly clad attendants, the curb merchants are dressed for work in hand, and are courteous, too, for they want the same customers to come back again and bring their neighbors.”

Apparently, the customer and the neighbors were returning in Philadelphia, and everywhere else. The curbstone market had evolved into the most universal, democratic food distribution institution.

“Many cities in America and Europe have set aside streets for open air or curbstone markets,” wrote Clyde Lyndon King in 1913. “Vienna has 40 such open markets; Antwerp, 19. The rental for wagon space, as a rule is nominal…whether in Atchison, Kansas, San Antonio, Texas, [or in] Buffalo, New York.” In Cleveland, Ohio, “two and a half miles of streets…are lined by 1300 farmers and 400 hucksters. Both Baltimore and Montreal attract 1500 wagons each market day by their curbstone markets.”

“The pushcart, the vender’s wagon and the open air farmers’ markets offer the cheapest possible store at adaptable locations, and thus should give avenues for food distribution at minimum costs. While there can be no doubt that the covered market will be the better in the long run, yet the open air curbstone market offers a good temporary method of attracting farmers and of giving consumers an opportunity to buy directly.”

The promise of “’producer to consumer’ has always had an alluring sound, wrote an editor of the Inquirer in 1918, “but somehow it has never been effected in a practical and workable manner.”

“Multiply the Curb Markets,” read another editorial. “We have long talked of the advantages of the from ‘farms to table’ idea, and now is the time to prove that it is something more than a beautiful theory.”

Curbstone Market, 4th and Fitzwater, 1914 (PhillyHistory)

All the more appealing when the cost of food supplies at the market halls grew to 50 percent of a workingperson’s paycheck. As food costs rose, editors of the Evening Ledger assigned a reporter to conduct a comparison between “the style and convenience” of shopping in the market halls and the convenience of the curbstone market.

Consider the head of cabbage, urged the report. It may be “bought for five cents, if a woman picks it up from a basket and carries it home.” But the price “is greatly increased … if it is sent home in the dealer’s fancy automobile and delivered in a fancy wooden box by a uniformed messenger.” In order “to economize and get down to simplicity in buying,” the shopper “cannot find a better place than the curbstone market. … Here can be found everything in the produce line, devoid of frills, at low prices.”

During the First World War the situation became even more dire for “the salaried man whose pay envelope is no larger, but whose expenses have been soaring skyward for several years. The curbstone market should be a blessing to such persons and the [curbstone market] experiment will be watched with unusual interest.”

“Curbstone Market Solves Cost of Living Problem” read the headline featuring the reporter’s comparison of prices with those at the Reading Terminal market. The reporter found 17 foods where the shopper “could save $1.20 by patronizing the curbstone market instead of the Terminal Market. Deducting 10 cents for carfare for those who live beyond walking distance from the curbstone market the saving would be $1.10 on each trip…” Assuming three marketing trips per week, the savings would be $3.30 every week, significant savings for families dependent on factory worker wages of $11 per week.

From “Curbstone Market Solves Cost of Living Problem,” Evening Ledger, October 9, 1914 (The Library of Congress)

During the First World War the situation became even more dire for “the salaried man whose pay envelope is no larger, but whose expenses have been soaring skyward for several years. The curbstone market should be a blessing to such persons and the [curbstone market] experiment will be watched with unusual interest.”

[Sources: Clyde Lyndon King, Municipal Markets, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 50, Reducing the Cost of Food Distribution (Nov., 1913), pp. 102-117; Candice L. Harrison, The Contest of Exchange: Space, Power, and Politics in Philadelphia’s Public Markets, 1770-1859 (Dissertation in History, Emory University, 2008) PDF; “Curbstone Market Solves Cost of Living Problem,” The Evening Ledger [Philadelphia] October 9, 1914; “Support the Curbstone Markets” Inquirer, August 23, 1918; “Multiply the Curb Markets, Inquirer, September 4, 1918; “More Curb Markets May be Founded,” Inquirer, May 16, 1919.]

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