The Reading Terminal Market claims to be the oldest, continually-operating farmers market in the United States. Yet so does the Lancaster Central Market. So what’s up? Well wait a second, here’s the solution, The Lancaster Central Market makes their claim to be the oldest continually-operating farmers market in its original location. The Reading Terminal Market has moved several times as the city of Philadelphia grew larger. Originally, in 1680, the Philadelphia farmer’s and fisherman’s market was located at High Street and First Street, close by the Delaware River. High Street was later renamed Market Street and over the next two hundred years the market moved several times – on each occasion moving westward along Market Street. Finally in 1891 the Reading Terminal was built and included the farmers and butchers market on the ground floor below the train station.
The Reading Terminal Market opened for business on February 23, 1892. The street-level Market reverberated with the sound of trains rumbling overhead. The stalls were laid out in a grid pattern with twelve aisles running east-west and four wider avenues running north-south. Sawdust was spread on the floor to absorb spills and moisture rising from the vast cold storage facility in the basement. By 1913 the Market was booming, with 250 food dealers and 100 farmers occupying its stalls.
In 1979 the market was at its lowest point with only 20 percent occupancy. In the 1970s the market, like the rest of the city, experienced hard times. Fortunately, in 1980 the Reading Company began to invest in the market. In 1983 the Reading Terminal Market was 60 percent occupied. The market had become a center for impromptu piano concerts and a place for charitable food events. In 1984 the last train left the upstairs Reading Terminal, and in 1985 the Market East Station with rail and subway services opened underneath the market. Everything had changed, but the market was still running and beginning a come back.
Here’s what people had to say back during the hard times:
“The Market (continues to) exist only by the winking and clinking of city officials.”
Harry R. Belinger, Former City Commerce Director, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1977
“I’m here for about 38 years, and back in those days it was the finest market on the East coast. They had one in New York that was good, too, but I think this was the best.”
–Harry G. Ochs, Market butcher
“The market, one of Philadelphia’s great public spaces, is an integral part of the new convention center…It must be saved as part of the city’s daily life…”
Thomas Hine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1992
Today the Reading Terminal Farmer’s Market is in the best condition I’ve seen it since I was a boy in the 1950s. All the booths are subscribed with vendors, the facility is newly refurbished and as clean as I’ve ever seen it. It looks, smells, sounds, tastes and feels great. There are also more food and produce growers (and restaurant) booths and fewer craft vendors, although there are some. The market now houses over 76 vendors in total. And the place is jumping full of people, all day long, who are eating artisanal foods and eating at lunch counters, shopping for fresh fish, meat, baked goods and produce and having a wonderful experience. Even the rest rooms are refurbished and you can still get your shoes shined by hand.
Here is the Reading Terminal Market’s Mission Statement:
•To preserve the architectural and historical character, and function, of the Reading Terminal Market as an urban farmers’ market.
•To provide a wide variety of produce, meat, fish, bakery and dairy products, and other raw and prepared food, brought to a public market in the center of the city by farmers, growers, producers and chefs;
•To maintain an environment that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of our citizens and fosters their interaction;
•To strengthen the historic link and mutual dependency of our rural and urban communities; and,
•To achieve this, while preserving the financial viability and achieving self-sufficiency for the Market.
And here’s what market shoppers have to say about their experience:
“It has a festive old-world energy that no 21st Century market could ever duplicate.”
–Craig LaBan, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2007
“Cities build and plow under. Favorite haunts go dark. But the story of the Reading Terminal Market is that it is still with us, holding down the same acreage a century later. It had doubled down—a relic ripe with life, a memory still unburied, its story preciously rare and well worth telling…. It is the defiantly beating heart…of old, original Philadelphia,”
Rick Nichols, July 2011
“Customers are drawn by the diversity, the democracy, the vitality, color, and clatter.”
–David K. O’Neil, General Manager Reading Terminal Market The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1988
“It’s still very much a working market… It looks great but not too polished. It’s still the old market with the same feeling it had before.”
–Irina Smith, Food author and Market shopper
“The wondrous smells waft through the Market, putting people at ease. The presence of food defines the place as a huge tent under which hospitality and satisfaction can be expected.”
–Professor Elijah Anderson, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, 2011
“There’s a lot going on. Ice getting shoveled over the sea bass. Peach cones getting dipped. Tubas of fruity Lucques being scooped. The Market is animated, not static. Talky, not silent. Mined with intersections that might yield who knows what.”
–Rick Nichols, July 2011
This farmer’s market is the pride of Philadelphia, and for those who love food, a national treasure. Visit it soon and often.