Markets have been a part of Philadelphia’s history since the city’s development by William Penn in the late 17th century. When Penn’s managers established the town of Philadelphia, one of their first actions was to herd the ragtag crowd of farmers, fishermen, and huntsmen, who were hawking their goods all over the bustling settlement, into an open area at the foot of what was known as High Street along the Delaware River. Soon, the so-called ‘Jersey Market’ (because most of the hucksters were from the neighboring state) began to expand westward in the middle of the thoroughfare that had been appropriately renamed Market Street.
Not long after, open air markets fell out of favor with the general public. They were considered health hazards and nuisances. They also created obstacles for the ever-increasing streetcar traffic. Bowing to complaints of nearby residents, city fathers decreed that the street markets would have to go, and in 1859 summarily dismantled them. It was then that two main markets sprang up at 12th and Market Streets. They were known as the Farmers’ Market and the Franklin Market. It would be these two markets that would become the forerunners of what is now Reading Terminal Market.
In the postwar years, sweeping changes in where people lived, how they traveled, and where they shopped signaled problems for the Market’s viability. The Reading Railroad’s revenue declined and it had less to invest in the Market’s upkeep. The roof started leaking and the building deteriorated. Compounding these challenges, new food safety regulations required farmers and merchants to invest in modern equipment.
By the early 1980s the reawakening of Philadelphia’s commercial center and a growing interest in artisanal food drew a new generation of shoppers to the Market. In 1989, a new convention center – adjacent to the Market – was on the drawing boards.
The newly-formed Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority purchased the Reading Terminal Market from the Reading Company in 1990. The Authority secured a critical $30 million in public funding to upgrade the Market’s infrastructure and freshen up the drab interior. In 1995, the Authority created a non-profit corporation to manage the Market. In the years since, this historic landmark has prospered. Today the Reading Terminal Market is one of the nation’s most successful public markets with more than 75 independent small businesses that offer an array of fresh and prepared foods, lunch counters, and places to eat and shop.