Tag Archives: Center Market

Market Space

Space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical.

-Richard White

Drawing upon Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of SpaceRichard White provides this definition of space in What is Spatial History? and challenges historians to think about change over both time AND space as they practice history.

I am currently researching Center Market, Washington D.C.’s oldest and largest public marketplace. The market was located on Pennsylvania Avenue from 1801-1931 until it was demolished to make way for the National Archives Building. I am using representations of space such as maps and blueprints to try to recapture a sense of a place that no longer exists.

Plan of the Interior of Center Market 83-G-8993

Plan of the Interior of Center Market, June 1924. Courtesy of the National Archives.

This ground plan shows the massive size of the market and even some of the diversity of activity, but it fails to capture the daily activities and use that really produced the market. Center Market was much more than a building. Although they were constrained by the built environment, people shaped the market space.

Photograph of the Interior of Center Market (83-G-672)

Photograph of the Interior of Center Market, April 21, 1923. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Photographs can give some sense of everyday life in the market; pictures capture the layout of the market, the goods that were sold, the people that shopped there and the clothes that they wore. Together these things inform us of the culture and experience of the past. When compared with representations of space such as maps or plans, they can also show surprising discrepancies. For instance, the official ground plan of Center Market only depicts the interior of the market. However, photographs show that Center Market’s exterior was just as bustling and crowded as its interior. Farmers’ wagons, trucks, and automobiles lined the curb outside of the market selling fresh country produce.


Photograph of the Farmers Line Outside of Center Market  (83-G-16314)

Photograph of the Farmers Line Outside of Center Market. Courtesy of the National Archives.

The very name ‘Center Market’ hints at the importance of space and movement. The market originally earned the name because it was easily accessed via the main roads and waterways of the city of Washington. Center Market was located in the ‘center’ of a very different Washington D.C. To get a better idea of the change, take a look at this map of the city of Washington D.C. in 1861 compared to 2014. The ‘center’ of Washington D.C. has changed from being a vibrant public marketplace to a monumental core of official government buildings.

It is worth repeating: space is, “something that human beings produce over time…Space is itself historical”

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A Capital Market

"Front View of 7th Street Entrance to Center Market"

Washingtonians of all ages and backgrounds pass Center Market in 1922.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Current Washingtonians might not recognize the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. in the photograph above. This corner of Pennsylvania Avenue used to be home to Center Market, Washington D.C.’s largest public market. What was once a bustling and vibrant marketplace is now part of Federal Triangle, a monumental core of white marble government buildings centered on a majestic and magnified National Mall.

But long before the monuments and the marble, there was a Market. In 1797, President George Washington designated two acres in the heart of Washington City for use as a public marketplace. For the next 134 years, Center Market was a Washington D.C. landmark on Pennsylvania Avenue, until it was demolished in 1931 to make way for the National Archives Building.

 “The great focus of interest, the one-time social center, place of endless entertainment, is gone and can never be restored…Another generation will have no concept of the significance of the site on which they stand.”
Sunday Star, May 17, 1931.

I found this quote while researching Center Market last semester.  I took it as a challenge to recapture something of the significance of Center Market through photographs of daily life at the market.I created an online exhibit using Omeka.net for a class on Visual and Material Culture:  Market Forces

A word cloud of the script from my first web exhibit for a Visual and Material History class

A word cloud of the script from my first web exhibit for a Visual and Material History class

Despite my best intentions, the web exhibit did not accomplish all of my goals. There are many, many ways that I would improve the website. Omeka.net did not allow me to make my own customizations to the website. The organization of the exhibit flows poorly. The section descriptions are hidden on the exhibit home page and are not integrated into the exhibit. The layout options for each section are limiting, forcing me to either cram too much text next to the pictures or leave uncomfortable white spaces at the top of the page. Most of all, I was frustrated with the photograph display. The Omeka.net site simply links the image back to the catalog description page. The ideal photograph display should be interactive; users should be able to engage with the photographs, enlarging images and zooming in on areas of interest.

Luckily, I am getting another chance to interpret Center Market’s fascinating history. I will work with the History Office at the National Archives and Records Administration to create an online exhibit for the History Office webpage.

The largest component of this project will be the creation of the web exhibit. I will design and code this website myself using Dreamweaver. The website will be hosted by http://www.nara.gov. I have been tasked to only  use sources from the National Archives, so I will need to do additional research to find new primary sources.

There is also a digitization and public access component to this project. As I discover new records at the Archives that have not been digitized, I will scan and enter the records into the Archives’ Online Public Access database. I will also be uploading a gallery of Center Market Photographs to the National Archives History Offices’ Flickr account.

This project will combine many of the skills and challenges that we have been discussing in my New Media class this semester and I cannot wait to share the final results with you all!

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