Market Forces: The Dynamic History of Center Market

In 1797, George Washington designated two acres in the City of Washington for use as a public marketplace. For the next 134 years, Center Market stood in that very place along Pennsylvania Avenue.

“One seldom sees it illustrated on picture postals, yet the Market has played an intimate part in the lives of our citizens from Presidents and other great men of our nation down to the humblest citizen.”
- Boston Cooking School Magazine, 1915

Center Market was well named. The market stood at the center of the physical city and it also served as a social center. Individuals of different ages, classes, races, and gender came together in the public marketplace.

Throughout its history, Center Market was loud and lively. The marketplace was filled with crowds of people and transportation of all kinds. Hucksters, farmers, and market men sold fruits, vegetables, and live animals to city-dwelling Washingtonians. The market attracted middle-class ladies, community leaders, businessmen, and social reformers.

While the market is gone, traces of its significance remain.

Plans from government officials, architects, city-planners tell us the intended use for the market and reveal changing definitions of modernity. The plans were also active agents that shaped the city.

Photographs capture a view of Center Market not seen in the architect’s plans. Photographic images can be interpreted to explore the social, cultural, and material significance of everyday life.

 These images are a tangible link to the dynamic history of Center Market.


Images courtesy of: DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division; Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division; National Archives and Records Administration; and the Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University.