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What Once Was

By Stephen A. Hansen *

Food on the Streets: Street vending in the District of Columbia

To view images full size & high resolution, left click on each

By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In 19th century Washington sales of goods and produce involved the District government in a more visible way than today. Since the founding of the city, Washington had several municipal market houses, where sheltered space was leased to dealers and where weights and measures could be officially monitored. Thus, the merchant was provided a consistent (and safe and clean) location and the consumer given some measure of protection.

Although the markets were equally distributed across the city (Center, Eastern, and Western Markets — and in Georgetown), going to the market could be inconvenient. To fill that need, in stepped hawkers, hucksters, and street vendors. Hawkers were licensed in the City of Washington starting in 1829. Regulations for licensing hucksters appear in the 1853 code, the salient portion covering “. . . trading or business of huckstering, or buying, selling, or dealing in poultry, eggs, butter, wild game, vegetables, fruits, and other market stuffs, family provisions, horse-feed, or corn meal, and of vending or retailing any other such articles…[except fish].”

But licensing hucksters goes much further back. Correspondence in Thomas Jefferson’s papers show him issuing a pardon in 1805 to a licensed huckster, though on a matter unrelated to sales of goods.

The terms for who was selling on the street are confusing. Local historian Carlton Fletcher gives this useful definition: “A gardener was someone who had a market- or truck-garden, in which he grew produce to sell. A huckster bought produce in the morning, and resold it during the day; he could have a shop, or a wagon, or both, but to do either he had to have a license, and a regular stand in the market. Buying from a huckster was more convenient than going to market early in the morning, but prices were correspondingly higher.” [1]

“In Washington City – 1839”. Augustus Kollner’s engraving of a man with two horses and cart selling produce in the street. photo — Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

 Inevitably as sales of goods expanded beyond the confines of the market houses, selling goods in public space, whether sidewalk or roadway, became an issue. These dealers were not paying market license fees, giving them an unfair price advantage. They were occupying public space for private gain; was that even legal?

In the 1800s concerns about street vending led to a re-codification and clarification of the existing regulations. Other cities, such as Los Angeles, were undertaking similar exercises. In 1887 Congress finally passed legislation authorizing the District to enact regulations governing street vendors, [2] as well as a mixed bag of other safety and public space concerns. There does not seem to be any specific incident which instigated this legislation. Eight years earlier, in 1879, the Market Dealers’ Protective Association raised the issue, noting their concern about “selling produce on the pavements outside the market by persons who do not raise the articles they sell.”

“Market Dealers’ Meeting.” Washington Post, Aug. 1, 1879.

 As early as 1881 bills had circulated in Congress which included provisions for regulating and licensing various kinds of vendors, including coal, nostrums, produce. [3] In 1884 legislation was proposed to add a provision to the District’s legal code forbidding retail sales after 10 a.m. by famers and hucksters within one square of any market.

In November of that year some peanut and banana vendors were fined for blocking the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue. Inevitably, tensions were broken at times with some moments of levity – onlookers had a good laugh when an unattended Army officer’s horse nibbled on the contents of a banana vendor’s cart. [4]

The legislation progressed slowly. In 1884 the language appears in near-final form as “SEC. 21. That the Commissioners shall have power to locate the places where hacks, newsboys, boot-blacks, and licensed vendors on streets and public places shall stand, and change them as often as the public interests require, and to make all necessary regulations governing the same, and the manner of conducting such business…” [5] The same legislative language was introduced in the Senate again in 1885 by Senator James Ingalls.

Throughout these years the District Commissioners were Josiah Dent (1878-‘82), Thomas P. Morgan (1879-‘85), Maj. William Twining (1879-‘82), Maj. Garret J. Lydecker (1882-‘86), Joseph Rodman West (1883-‘85), James B. Edmonds (1883-‘86), William B. Webb (1885-‘89), Samuel E. Wheatley (1886-‘89), and Col. William Ludlow (1886-‘89). The Superintendents of Police were William G. Brock (1879-‘83), General William McE. Dye (1883-‘86), Samuel H. Walker (1886), and Colonel William G. Moore (1886-‘98). Despite the personnel turnover, the District government persisted in pursuing the legislation over several years between 1881 and 1886. The legislation clarified the authority of the District government to issue police regulations on specific public concerns.

Once the legislation was passed, it was up to the Commissioners to craft and issue the actual police regulations — a process which took six months. An Evening Star reporter recounted his conversation with Commissioner Wheatley in the March 7, 1887 issue with Wheatley expressing his satisfaction with the law.

On June 15, 1887 the District Commissioners issued the new police regulations, authorized by that Congressional act. These were wide-ranging and the foundation of many regulations still effect today. Restrictions were placed on pawnbrokers and junk dealers, storage of inflammable substances, movement and parking of vehicles, hack rates, the driving of animals on the streets, keeping of dogs and fowl, and “deposits on streets.” Lest there be confusion about what constituted “street” in these regulations, one clause seems to have provided clarification in the following manner: “street, avenue, alley, highway, footway, sidewalk, parking or public space.”

Commissioners Webb, Wheatley, and Ludlow ordered these regulations be published in the District’s daily newspapers — the Evening Star, Washington Post, National Republican, and Evening Critic. [6] In April the police had already raided the hucksters and took a number of those unlicensed into custody. [7]

“POLICE REGULATIONS.” Washington Post, Jun. 27, 1887.

Shortly after the publication of the new regulations the Washington Post reported on its conversation with Commissioner Webb who said, “The ground was pretty well covered by old city ordinances, but most of them were forgotten or disputed, many of them were ambiguous and contradictory. . . . We have tried to modernize them, to make them suitable to the present requirements of the city. . . .”

“The New Police Regulations: A Talk With Commissioner Webb About Their Effect.” Washington Post, Jun. 25, 1887.

By September of 1887 the Star was reporting on the evasion of the regulations — hucksters passing themselves off as farmers. Farmers could bring their produce to the market and sell for a nominal fee. Hucksters needed the $25 license. [8]

At that time police regulations were not restricted to criminal matters but included public order generally. Police power was much broader than enforcement of criminal laws; rather it covered protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public. Also, the District’s police regulations were issued by the Commissioners; laws had to be passed by Congress. Soon Congress was offering up amendments; in 1888 Congressman John Hemphill (D-SC) proposed legislation limiting the types of vendors to farmers or gardeners selling their own produce from a cart or wagon. [9]

In 1882 improvements were made at Center Market to accommodate farmers and their wagons, notably the installation of smooth vitrified brick paving along B Street between 7th and 9th Streets. The object in laying vitrified bricks was to furnish a surface smooth enough to be readily cleaned following the removal of farmers’ teams stands after being sold out. The necessity for such thorough cleansing in the interest of public health was too obvious to need discussion. [10]

Photographs from back then and following years illustrate the horse manure which was so delicately not spoken.

“Leavings from the horse-drawn carts of the vendors along B Street NW between 9th and 11th Streets, north of the new United States National Museum” (Oct. 9, 1909). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 79, National Museum building construction records, image No. SIA2009-1990.

Congress was on a periodic swipe at Center Market, sending several inquiries about the legality of aspects of the operation and occupation of its space. The Commissioners explained to Congress what, to them, seemed embarrassingly obvious — smooth paving would ease the clearing of the horse manure left by the farmers’ horses.

The area along B Street, NW (now Constitution Avenue) between 10thth and 12th Streets was designated for a hay market so as to divert produce wagons from the streets at Center Market. (Those wagons not only obstructed sidewalks and streets, but were drawn by those polluting horses).[11]

Vending still caused friction. Police cracked down on Greek and Italian candy and chestnut sellers obstructing the street and sidewalks at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Newspaper accounts in 1894 noted an effort to enact a “Bill to Prevent the Selling of Food Articles which are Not as Represented” and that a gentleman named John Clark complained to the Commissioners that his daughter was being insulted by pushcart vendors outside Center Market as she returned home from work. [12]

In 1895, that new smooth pavement south of Center market (and the vendors occupying it) became a flashpoint. On November 2, 1895 the Commissioners issued an order expelling (in effect) the vendors from the B Street space. The farmers threw up a furious raft of arguments, the core of which was that they had, since 1802, sold produce from carts backed up to the sidewalks adjacent to the various District market houses as a matter of right without needing a license. This included the space south of Center Market. The Washington Market Company, which ran Center Market, also objected to the removal, fearing the action would “break up the completeness of the market and greatly cripple its business. . . .”

The Senate resolved that “the custom was too ancient to be disturbed without better reasons than appear[ed] in the present case”; the House agreed, having visited the site and held a special hearing. [13] In 1896 licensed vendors were assigned street spaces along B Street and Louisiana Avenue adjacent to their stands and leaving a walkway for pedestrians. [14]

The situation can only be imagined but photographs in 1909 show a still chaotic situation.

“Vendors along B Street NW between 9th and 11th Streets, north of the new United States National Museum” (Oct. 9, 1909). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 79, National Museum building construction records, image No. SIA2009-1995.

Standards for measures were revised in 1896, and in 1921 the Department of Weights, Measures, and Markets was created with the mandate to “establish standard weights and measures for the District of Columbia; to define the duties of the Superintendent of Weights, Measures, and Markets of the District of Columbia; and for other purposes.” The authority “to regulate the measurement of, and weight by which all articles brought into the city for sale shall be disposed of . . .” dated back to at least 1812. [15]

Changes in retailing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made consumers less reliant on the municipal markets and the adjacent produce vendors. During World War I there was a florescence of street vending for hungry war workers.

“Vendors along B Street NW between 9th and 11th Streets, north of the new United States National Museum” (Oct. 9, 1909). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 79, National Museum building construction records, image No. SIA2009-1995.

In 1921 the federal government took over Center Market, terminating the Washington Market Company’s lease. In 1926, after the announcement of the planned closure of Center Market, the Citizens’ Advisory Council (composed of approximately 40 members elected from citizens’ organizations) proposed a new market complex for retail, wholesale, and farmers’ be created around the then existing Convention Hall Market at the junction of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts Avenues. This complex was to replace the Center Market and Farmers’ Produce Market which the federal government had just acquired and intended to replace with office buildings. This beat out a competing proposal to construct the complex in southwest Washington near the Fish Market. [16]

Center Market was one of 10 public markets in Washington. The others included the District-owned Eastern Market, Western Market, the Fish Market, and the privately-owned Arcade, Northeastern, O Street, Park View, Riggs, and the Convention Hall markets. When Center Market was closed, its dealers did move to the Convention Hall—renamed as New Center Market. The produce market was relocated to 11th and F Streets, SW in 1930. [17] Union Market on Florida Avenue was begun in 1929. Street vendors no longer had Center Market around which to gravitate. New Center Market never had the retail dominance of its predecessor.

Of course, vigorous conflict over the privatization of public space by individuals using such for the sale of goods persists. All public space is under this kind of privatizing challenge, as its use as right-of-way is being diminished. The District has reinvigorated its vending regulations, and in 2013 instituted a food truck lottery program,    but is still re-evaluating sidewalk vending. Regulation of vending in public space has always been, and continues to be, a consumer protection and public order concern.

“World War I era Street vendor — selling salted peanuts, pies, milk, doughnuts. photo — Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.


[Editor’s Note: Every so often the issue of vending on the street hits the headlines, as it did nearly a decade ago in the September 2010 issue of this publication. That news report, “Unlicensed and Non-DC Resident Vending in City Funded Adams Morgan Program Exposed,” while focused on a pilot program in Unity Park bounded by Columbia Road, Euclid and Champlain Streets in Adams Morgan to assist Latinos seeking to get a foothold in the local economy, the underlying opposition to allowing vendors to set up in public space –- as on sidewalks at the curb opposite retail stores –- was, and to this day, the assertion of “unfair completion.”]


Thanks to Carlton Fletcher, Professor Robert Shepherd, historian Helen Tangires, and Smithsonian Institution Archives staff.


Available by clicking here.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC history blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years. He has presented numerous workshops and public lectures, and published articles and books on Washington D.C. history.

© Copyright © 2020 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §§ 107 & 108 (“fair use”).

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