Interns and staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives are digitizing historic photographs of the National Museum of Natural History building in preparation of its 100th birthday on March 17, 2010. My siblings and I spent weekend mornings with our dad at The Montgomery County Farm Women’s Cooperative Market in Bethesda, Maryland, bringing home paper bags full of more produce than we knew what to do with (to our mother’s exasperation). I still like a good farmers’ market, in theory and in practice; I know many others share a similar fondness. Digitizing images from the construction and opening of the National Museum of Natural History Building taken in the first decade of the 20th century, I encountered some striking photographs set outside D.C.’s historic Center Market. These images were totally foreign to me; I’d never heard of Center Market and didn’t know much about Washington’s early markets and vendors, so I did a little research. These early 20th century photographs from outside Center Market present the vendors’ everyday setting: cobblestone streets, warehouses, storefronts, horses and wagons. These unremarkable scenes offer hints of what people in D.C. were wearing, seeing, and peddling during the time of the Museum’s construction.
The market vendors appear in stark contrast to the imposing edifice in the background. It’s easy to identify with the National Museum of Natural History Building; the scenes captured around it feel distinctly of another time. A 1909 photograph featuring a food vendor just outside the Museum may be my favorite. If you look closely you can see her sign says “Hot Sausage: 3ct.” Now it costs more, but 100 years later there’s likely a hot dog vendor outside the National Museum of Natural History Building pushing the same product. A little history: Center Market stretched from 7th and 9th Streets between Constitution Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW for more than a century before it was razed for construction of the National Archives in 1931. Though the Market building was constructed in 1871, “the square operated as a marketplace from 1801.” Center Market was designed by Adolf Cluss, a distinguished Washington architect whom also designed the Smithsonian Castle and the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries building. D.C.’s celebrated Eastern Market, too, was designed by Cluss and constructed in 1873. Indeed, there were several markets in Washington by the late 19th century: 1892’s Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. spoke of eight markets in the District. All of them were publicly owned, save for Center Market, which was, the book elaborates, “The largest and one of the finest in the country . . .This market house took the place of one that had for years been an eyesore to the residents of the city. It was erected by a private company, chartered by Congress for the purpose.” Eastern Market was expanded in 1908 and was “unofficially recognized as the ‘town center’ of Capitol Hill.” Eastern Market is still operational and recently reopened in June 2009 after terrible fire damage in April 2007. Look for The National Museum of Natural History’s “Snapshots of 100 Years at the National Museum of Natural History.”
Emma Wolman is the Institutional History Intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.