Reading Terminal Market, From the 19th Century to the 21st

Reading Terminal Market

View of Reading Terminal Market, from across the street at the Pennsylvania Convention Center - look for the red letters in the center which read "Reading Terminal", and the white ones that read "Market. (Note: you'll need to click directly on the photo, in order to enlarge it, to read the detailed lettering...)

View Reading Terminal Market in a larger map

Center City District - TEAL - Convention Center District

Reading Terminal Market has endured for well over a century, by adapting to new technologies and societal changes. But it remains the same dynamic, thriving marketplace it has always been.

So how and why did this smorgasbord of food nirvana come to be? And how has it survived so long, even in a city as rich in history as Philadelphia?

Let's find out...

The Early Years for the Market and its Ancestors

Market Street was not originally named as such, by William Penn and his surveyor, Thomas Holme, back in 1682. Their original name for it was High Street. It ran east to west, through Center Square (now City Hall), to the Delaware River.

As the colony of Pennsylvania grew, it was determined that instead of everyone selling his/her wares all over the street grid, that they should be grouped together at the foot of High Street, just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. This made sense, as it was possible for New Jersey purveyors to easily cross the river with their goods. It became known as the "Jersey Market", logically enough.

As prosperity continued, the High Street waterfront market expanded the only way it could - westward, into the center of Philadelphia. Accordingly, and logically, the name "High Street" fell out of usage, and became known as "Market Street".

By the time of the Civil War, in the mid-19th century, the various and sundry markets - all open-air - now ranged six full blocks, from the original Jersey Market at Front and Market Streets. (Front Street - named because it is the waterfront to the Delaware River - is the equivalent of "1st Street", much in the same way as Broad Street is the equivalent of "14th Street".)

The broad technological advances of Victorian America transformed the chaotic, eclectic mix of merchants on Market Street. With improvements in hygiene, came the belief that open-air markets were unsanitary and should be enclosed. Also, the advent of motorized transportation - the street-car - meant that the streets needed to be kept clear of obstacles, in order for the street-cars to move efficiently through the city.

So, in 1859 - the year prior to Abraham Lincoln's election as President of the United States, and two years before the Civil War officially began with the firing on Fort Sumter - the open-air markets on Market Street moved indoors. This decision was made by the city government, after a great many complaints by residents about the outdoor markets.

Two enclosed markets appeared at 12th and Market Streets. They were the Farmers' Market and the Franklin Market- the ancestors of the current Reading Terminal Market.

Victorian Times - The Arrival of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads Transform the Market

Three decades passed, which witnessed the Union victory in the Civil War and an increasing pace of industrialization, particularly in Pennsylvania. Railroad expansion played an enormous role in that process.

There were originally two major railroads in Philadelphia. And every Monopoly player knows both of them from the board game: the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Reading Railroad.

The Reading Railroad derived its name from the Berks County town of Reading, about 65 miles from Philadelphia. (Officially, it was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, logically enough, but it was universally referred to as "the Reading".)

As competitors, each railroad built its own architecturally impressive station in Center City Philadelphia. In 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad built Broad Street Station, what is now Suburban Station. The current station, built in 1930, can be entered at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard. (The subterranean Concourse extends to Broad Street.)

Not to be outdone, in 1889, the Reading Railroad opted to build its own magnificent station, just a few blocks away. The Reading Railroad built its Reading Terminal at 11th and Market Streets, in what is now Market East Station.

Four years later, in 1893, the Reading Terminal Headhouse opened. The current Reading Terminal Market appeared in 1893, as the result of the consolidation of the aforementioned Farmers' Market and Franklin Market. Ultimately, the Reading decided to buy the two markets for $1 million and put them under one roof.

In a key move, the railroad also decided to build the railroad tracks over the markets, so Reading trains would arrive in Philadelphia on the first story, above Market Street. An architecturally magnificent archway was built to achieve this purpose. (It is the oldest remaining archway of this type in the world, and the only one left in America.)

Accordingly, the pre-existing markets at 12th Street were transformed into the Reading Terminal Market. Railroad service provided a highly efficient way for farmers and other food producers in the rich Pennsylvania countryside, to take their fresh food to customers, via the Reading Railroad.

The new Reading Terminal Market was a significant improvement over its antecedents. Just like Philadelphia, the Market was laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid pattern. It had a dozen aisles. It boasted 78,000 square feet, and could accommodate almost 800 merchants in six-foot stalls.

And it wasn't just the sheer size of the Market, that made it distinctive. It could proudly note that it held then-state-of-the-art, turn-of-the-20th-century refrigeration capacity - 500,000 cubic feet. Moreover, the temperature could be individually controlled for each of its 52 rooms, depending on the food product.

As the years went by, and suburban population grew, residents could even request home delivery of their orders from the Market. After an order was placed, the merchant would place the basket of goods on a Reading train, bound for the customer's home, label it as such, and she could pick it up at her nearby train station.

After World War I, improvements were made in refrigerated trucks, and the Market grew along with them. The Market offered delivery directly to a person's home, via refrigerated truck, to many towns, throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and even to the New Jersey shore points.

In November 1931, the Market celebrated its 40th anniversary, and boasted that it was the largest market under one roof in the nation at the time. To mark the occasion, a "Food and Home Progress Exposition" was held there, drawing thousands of visitors.

reading terminal market - cornucopia

21st-century cornucopia of prosperity, at the Reading Terminal Market - but it probably looked identical, in 1931... To see it in its full glory, just click on the photo...

The Post-World War II Era - The Reading Railroad Collapses

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a rocky time for the Market, but it survived. During World War II, the Market not only survived, but thrived, as it was a source for food and items that were difficult to obtain, due to wartime rationing. In 1944, the Market was operating at 97% capacity.

The Market had survived two wars and the Great Depression, but ironically, the most significant threat to its existence came from post-World War II prosperity, and the transportation changes that came with it.

After World War II, the increasingly popular automobile overtook railroad travel as the dominant method of personal transportation. Air travel also contributed to the decline of railroads. As a result, all railroads in the Northeast Corridor began to struggle financially, by the 1960s.

The Market was neglected by the Reading, which was barely staying afloat. The once state-of-the-art refrigeration system, from the turn of the 20th century, was closed, and merchants had to provide their own refrigeration.

The Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy in November 1971. In Philadelphia, the commuter lines of the once-mighty competitors, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Railroad, were eventually consolidated into a single rail system - now called SEPTA Regional Rail. The old Reading Terminal station at 11th and Market Streets was renamed Market East Station, and all Regional Rail trains now stop at both Suburban Station and Market East.

What was left of the Reading was now a real estate company, which now had to determine the fate of the Reading Terminal and its Market, one of its chief assets. Due to the chronic inattention from its corporate owner, the Market's ambience, and its business, were both steadily declining.

The 1980s to the 21st Century - The Market Survives, and Thrives

In 1985, the last trains arrived on the upstairs floor at the Reading Terminal, as the commuter rail system was now reconfigured to go underground, from Suburban Station to Market East. Fortunately, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had committed itself to the construction of the Convention Center, and issued a commitment to saving the Reading Terminal Headhouse and converting it into the glittering structure that we see today.

Philadelphians had a strong desire to save both the Reading Terminal, and the Market under its decommissioned tracks, and the continued existence of both, was incorporated into the plan. When the Convention Center opened in 1993, the Market's fortunes revived with a vengeance, and it has thrived since then.

The Reading Terminal Market currently houses more than 80 merchants, and attracts 100,000 people a week, both locals and visitors. Of course, the prime location astride the Convention Center has helped enormously.

Much of the information on the Reading Terminal Market pages has been adapted from the
official Reading Terminal Market web site's History section. Check it out, if you'd like to learn more about the Market's long, fascinating history in Philadelphia.

If you'd like to return to the main Reading Terminal Market page, please click here.

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