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The French Market

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From the French Market Corporation:

For over 200 years, the historic French Market has been an enduring symbol of pride and progress for the people of New Orleans. While the Market has existed on the same site since 1791, each new decade and governing flag has brought dramatic changes to the Market and helped to secure its special place in the hearts of the people of New Orleans.

What began as a Native American trading post on the banks of the mighty, muddy Mississippi River on the site chosen for the City by the French, has become a cultural, commercial and entertainment treasure which the Crescent City proudly shares with the world.

Today, America’s oldest public market has assumed a leading role in the local economy as well, providing consistently increasing revenues for city government while putting millions of dollars back into the local economy.

While change has always come to the Market, it hasn’t always come easily. Hurricanes, fires, foreign wars and domestic political struggles have played their own special role in making the city’s best known landmark the commercial and cultural gumbo it is today.

Following decades of revolving Spanish and French dominance, the City of New Orleans became the crown jewel of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, opening the city and the Market to ships and traders from the world over.

“As for the confusion of tongues in the market, it was simply delicious. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and “Gumbo” contended with each other for supremacy”2 …” There are Gascon butchers, and the Italian and Spanish fruit vendors, and the German vegetable women; there are Moors, with their strings of beads and crosses, fresh from the Holy Land . . . Chinese and Hindu, Jew and Teuton, French and Creole, Malay, Irish, and English, all uniting in an ceaseless babble of tongues that is simply bewildering.”3

Others who frequented the early market included African-Americans selling coffee, pralines and calas, the rice fritter popular in 19th century New Orleans, and the Choctaw from north of Lake Pontchartrain who brought varieties of herbs, spices and handmade crafts.

Coffee drinking played a central role in the life of the Market. According to one account written in 1859 “about midnight the market begins to show signs of life; the coffee tables are decorated with their array of cups of steaming Mocha” . . . 4 A British visitor to the city in the 1880′s wrote of the market: “They gave me deliciously aromatic coffee, dark . . . beautifully crystallized sugar, plenty of hot milk, the purest bread, the freshest of butter.”5 

With the technological advancements of the late 1800′s, the grand old Market changed too. In 1870, a structure known as the Bazaar Market was built. Most significant for its time, this unusually well lit and functional building was designed by Joseph Abeilard, one of America’s first African-American architects.

Chief features of the Market at this time included the Halle des Boucheries or Butcher’s Market, a fruit and vegetable market, a fish market, and grocery goods sold in the Market’s Red Stores.

Also in abundance were multitudes of flowers and fauna from throughout south Louisiana. It was around this time that Italians – more specifically, those from Sicily – came to dominance in the Market, selling mostly fruits and vegetables. Even today, over a century later, merchants and farmers of Italian heritage continue to play a leading role in the life of the Market.

Prior to the late 1800′s, the City of New Orleans sold franchises in the Market to collect rents, maintain order and enforce sanitation. As time passed, the Market came under control of various city agencies and departments. Finally, with Robert Maestri as Mayor in 1932, the City Council consolidated management of the Market by authorizing organization of the French Market Corporation under the leadership of the French Market Business Men’s Association.

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Unless otherwise noted, the photographs on this website are from the Louisiana Digital Library.

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