New Orleans Then and Now: The French Market
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French Market. Detroit Publishing Co., 1910? //www.loc.gov/resource/det.4a23693/
This great black and white photo was taken around 1910 and features the French Market in New Orleans. It’s not too far from Mme Begues, the subject of a recent blog post.
Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Volume 2. Map page 13 (Image 26) and Map page 8 (Image 16). 1895 //www.loc.gov/item/sanborn03376_006/
The location of the French Market – near the Mississippi River and later the railroad tracks – has long been a place for selling fruits, vegetables, meat, etc. It is actually a series of buildings – the oldest of which is the meat market (boucherie) which dates to 1813 and is noted in this plan from 1815. The Sanborn map images from 1895 shows the layout from the meat market at the corner of Decatur and St. Ann across from Jackson Square, to the shops, then the fruit market, and finally stopping at the vegetable market on Decatur between St. Philip and Ursulines.
The market is where people bought and sold everything from the ingredients for gumbo to breakfasts and is in one sense, where New Orleans coffee became a “thing” — think chicory, Rose Nichaud, and even a brand of coffee named after the French Market. It was a place frequented by many of the locals and it even became the scene of a homicide just a few years after the Civil War.
Here is a small passage from an article in the February 28, 1875 New Orleans Bulletin. I found it on Chronicling America and it paints a picture of the market at that time:
Perhaps there was no more characteristic locality within its precincts than the famous French Market, situated on the townward margin of the levee, adjacent to Jackson Square. It comprised three separate divisions, devoted respectively to the sale of meat, vegetables and seeds. There was nothing remarkable architecturally about these erections, which were only so many open sheds, containing shops or stalls; but their salesmen and frequenters the scene in general—formed one of the acknowledged “lions” of the city.
To see the French Market to advantage, it was necessary to get up pretty early, most business being transacted in New Orleans, as in other semi-tropical or tropical localities, before the heat of the day.
Accordingly, we will cross the square named after the hero of the city at 6 A. M., at which time the sun, whose good example we have imitated, is making a long and fantastic shadow of the equestrian statue in the center, and throws it slanting athwart the shelly paths.
Plunging incontinently into the meat market, a great clatter of coffee-cups, a cheery chumping as of chopping meat, various cries and polyglot invitations to buy, an omnipresent hum and hustle, with other sights, scents and sounds of traffic- all these await us.
The butchers are naturally lords paramount of the scene. Here are butchers rotund, sturdy and civil, the Anglicism of their features Americanized by three generations’ descent; butchers of the old French type, so elderly, clean shaven and obsequious that you would not be surprised at a pig-tail being whisked into your face during their brisk gesticulations; butchers akin to the modern Parisian, with the closest cropped heads; butchers more or less remarkable, but all busy, and all more or less animated. Here, also, are some negro butchers, but generally in a subordinate capacity.
The demeanor of all present, whether buyers or sellers, white, black or parti-colored, is less brusque and practically democratic than that observable at a similar scene at the North.
There is, indeed, a mutual, simple courtesy, very pleasing to contemplate. It contrasts remarkably with what one sees at some of the minor markets of New York city, say Jefferson market, with its horrid avenues of bleeding and greasy carcasses; its bawling butchers, its shouldering, pushing, crowding and jostling purchasers; its noisome and rut-haunted floors. A butcher from such a locality would be out of place in the French Market of New Orleans, a roaring phenomenon, frightening away instead of attracting customers.
Cafe du Monde, 2018. Photo courtesy of Carol Messersmith.
The old French Market is still alive and is featured in many tourist photos. It’s far from the only place to buy food and other things now, but it still bustles with buying and selling. While the meat market has been replaced by Café du Monde, there are still shops offering many New Orleans-related items from art to cookbooks, stalls displaying fruits and vegetables, and flea market vendors selling a host of other goods.