"Lunch and the Long View: Checking Out the Market's New History Exhibit" by Carolyn Wyman
Plan an extra 20 minutes during your next Market visit to check out the new history exhibit in the Rick Nichols Room on the far end of Center Court.
Although billboard-sized historic Market pictures have long animated the odd corridor wall, this is first concentrated effort to explore the Market’s rich 120-year history chronologically. Funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation and put together by historians from the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent and the Reading Terminal Market Corporation in consultation with Reading Terminal Market Merchants’ Association, it’s one part of the recent Market expansion that’s finished and ready to see for free.
The 11 panels start by putting Reading Terminal into perspective of all the markets that served Philadelphians before. The first were located on the river, where the boats came in with food, but those open air stands gradually crept up High Street at such a density that that street’s name was changed to Market. These stands gradually moved into market buildings. In exhibit pictures, the Eastern at Fifth and Ludlow and the Western at 16th and Market look every bit as substantial as Reading Terminal. Why did Reading survive while they are gone? The lack of people in these photos could provide a clue.
Reading Terminal Market actually has its roots in three other early markets located on the 1100 block of Market Street that agreed to come together under the big new passenger terminal the Reading Terminal Railroad decided to build in downtown Philly in the early 1890s. That building is called “the largest and most commodious building of its kind in the world and one of the most beautiful public buildings in America” in an exhibit panel lithograph blow-up.
In the early days, suburbanites could get Market groceries delivered to their local train station. Market “brats” or delivery boys did the same for city residents, and an in-house parcel post station for food-lovers all over the country. That national business was a consequence of a sophisticated refrigeration system that allowed the Market to “offer our patrons food from distant lands and foreign lands that could not [otherwise] be shipped and kept on hand,” reads a panel quote from 1934 Market superintendant G. H. Ehien.
Although, judging from exhibit pictures, merchandise freshness back in the day depended just as often on old-fashioned ice or quick sales. One of the most striking differences between the Market today and in the old exhibit pictures is the amount of food hanging from hooks, sitting out on counters or in the case of one Christmastime 1948 poultry stand coping with a big turkey shipment, piled high on barrels and dollies.
Though modern-day shoppers might see the dawn of stricter food safety regulations as progress, the expense of their implementation — along with a usurious new landlord — contributed to the Market’s 1970s decline. By 1976 only 26 of the original 350 stands were still in business, the exhibit says.
The exhibit is forthright about theses latter-day troubles and the Market’s renovation as part of the Convention Center project, including pictures of Down Home Diner owner Jack McDavid trying to catch water flowing through the ceiling with a bucket, and Max Weiner of the Consumers Education and Protection Association collecting petition signatures to save the place. There are also just plain fun images, of dairyman John Seeds under a sign reading, “You can’t get eggs from eggplants but you can get butter from Seeds,” Harry Ochs showing Julia Child how to butterfly pork and President Obama ordering a cheesesteak at Carmen’s.
The Market history exhibit is available for viewing during regular Market hours except when the Rick Nichols Room is being used for a private event. Hungry for more history? Check out the Market’s Taste of Philly Food Tours held on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m.Posted on 07.17.12