The French Market, the most wondrous market in nineteenth century America, according to repeated visitor testimony, was built in 1813 on Decatur street. The market started adjacent to the lower Pontalba on Decatur and stretched from St Ann street to Ursulines. It had four general divisions, meat, fruit, vegetable, and fish. Five if you included the bazaar built in 1872. The market in general was a structure of brick columns with a slate roof, except for the bazaar ‘a structure of iron’ and the fish market, a ‘structure of iron and glass’ (Zacharie, New Orleans Guide 104.) The four divisions were separated by streets, and the spaces between during market hours were covered with stands and ‘side-walk peddlers’ offering ‘all sorts of miscellaneous merchandise…ornaments, confectionary, tinware, boots and shoes, essences, pipes, sausages, crinoline, thread and yarn, brooms, plants, crockery, hose, fruit, cheap edibles, and much more’ (The New Orleans Bulletin Feb 28 1875.) Opposite the vegetable market, alongside the banquette on Decatur, market gardeners set up their carts to sell vegetables at wholesale prices. Coffee stands were a traditional feature, and by the mid nineteenth century the French Market had two renowned ones, one at the head of the meat market at St Ann, the other at the head of the vegetable market by St Philip street. The one by St Philip was called Morning Call and the one by St Ann eventually became known as the Café du Monde but in 1885, according to Lafacadio Hearn, was called Café Rapide. Other more rudimentary coffee stands were scattered throughout the market.
A tour of the French Market became a convention of nineteenth century visitors to New Orleans and a cliché of tourist and guidebook descriptions alike. As early as 1868, a visitor remarked that everyone ‘who goes to New Orleans visits the French Market, one of the institutions of the city’ (The Evansville Journal May 14 1868.) The statement was repeated endlessly. ‘No visit to New Orleans is ever considered to be complete without a trip to “the market”‘ (The St. Louis Republic on Dec 27, 1903.) Indeed it was dwelt upon so heavily that The New Orleans Guide of 1893 insists that a trip to New Orleans that misses the French Market ‘is equivalent to not having seen New Orleans’ (Zacharie 101.) The market was at its best, every account concurs, at 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and, once there, you would encounter a ‘Babel’ of languages, ‘polyglot vociferations,’ ‘gombo languages of every shade,’ the praline seller and the Choctaws selling sassafras for ‘gombo filé.’ There you would purchase a cup of ‘famous black coffee,’ ‘of a very superior flavor,’ made ‘with a dripper in the Creole fashion.’ and you would marvel at the available variety of fish, fruit, and vegetables, unmatched by any other market in America.
The formulaic catalogue of wonders, however, left the occasional tourist disappointed at the absence of the praline seller or at having been spoken to in English by a Gascon butcher. The clichéd wonders also became jokes. The coffee, a wag remarked, was ‘so strong that one cup, well-stirred into a tub of warm water would make excellent boardinghouse coffee, sufficient for many days’ (Highland Weekly News Feb 24 1886.) And some visitors occasionally caught a glimpse of squalor through the marvels. A few even failed to see the marvels for the squalor. By the 1890s and early 1900s, more and more observers of the French Market found it to be an unbearably unhygienic and decaying institution. Orville T. Skillman wrote that the ‘French Market is too horrible to mention further than to say it is the finest appetite destroyer imaginable’ (The Breckenridge News March 17 1897.) Another journalist remarked that you ‘need not enquire of the whereabouts of the French Market: it makes itself known to you, without your seeing it’ by its ‘overpowering appeal to, and strenuous assault on, the degraded sense of smell’ (Charlotte Observer Fri Dec 26 1902.)
Orleanians were not unaware of the issue of hygiene regarding the market. In 1875 Inspector Charles Fox ‘smelled something disagreeable about the game stalls’ and discovered ‘a sufficient number of dead ducks to fill a wagon…badly decayed, therefore they were seized and dumped into the river’ (New Orleans Republican Nov 21 1875.) On another occasion ‘five thousand pounds of decayed fish was found in the ice chests of dealers at the French Market’ (The Donaldsonville Chief May 13, 1905.) Underscoring this was the general observation that the French Market seemed to be the origin of every outbreak of disease in the city. The outbreaks of yellow fever in 1905 and bubonic plague in 1914 were both traced to the French Market, and in neither instance was it for the first time. The problem was mosquitoes and rats; the market and its environs were fostering both and described thus:
The streets are narrow, the houses old, vegetation rank, water
is stagnant everywhere, the sewers are above ground, cisterns
are open, fruits are permitted to rot in the sun, mosquitoes
swarm in all directions…The Rice Belt Journal Aug 18 1905.
Orleanians also knew that the market posed more threats to life and limb than simple insanitary conditions. The vicinity was an exceptionally dangerous place. Murders occurred there regularly. Gangs of thieves operated in the area knocking down unaccompanied people with slingshots and robbing them. Simmering rivalries in business could result in the not uncommon sight of two men fighting to the death with any weapon to hand. On one occasion it was with meat cleavers. And the arrival of the Sicilians added to the volatile mix. A skirmish amongst a group of Sicilians in 1869 resulted in two deaths (The Weekly Echo August 19, 1869.) In 1871 an impromptu weightlifting contest ‘ripened into a quarrel’ between ‘Francisco Palmesano and Yucatan San.’ Gunfire was exchanged and San was killed (New Orleans Republican Aug 25 1871.) Salvador Fazio was shot dead in the French Market by E. Voutrain after grabbing the latter around the throat in an argument over the price of some wildfowl. Norbert Trepagnier was murdered after he ‘interfered in an affray at the French Market, whereupon the Italians set upon him with stilettos and left him for dead’ (The Indianapolis Times July 19 1891.) A feud between L. E. Boulett and Aristide Baletrecci was settled when the latter pulled a sword cane on the former who in turn pulled a gun and shot him dead (The Waco Evening News Jan 14 1893.) Two years later an explosion levelled two buildings beside the French Market, a barroom and a grocery, killing fifteen people. Boulett was a miraculous survivor, found wandering in a daze, having been blown into the street from his bed. Police ascribed the incident to accidental causes, but locals believed it was a revenge attempt on Boulett (Highland Recorder April 12 1895.)
As the 20th century began, the market was fading to a pale shadow of itself in its glory years. The Times-Picayune Guide of 1918 was apologetic for the condition in which visitors would find it. ‘The French Market is greatly changed from the old days, partly by the fact that other markets have been established all over the city, drawing away a great part of the ancient custom’ (Times-Picayune Guide 1918 34.) But in many ways it was a miracle the French Market had survived so long. Flooding had repeatedly threatened the market throughout the nineteenth century. In 1871 it was reported that the levee opposite the Red Store was sinking and the ‘river was making constant inroads under the levee opposite the French Market,’ and it was ‘thought that the new market [was] in danger’ (New Orleans Republican Aug 20 1871.) Then there was increasing concern over the part the French Market played in the outbreaks of yellow fever and bubonic plague of the 1890s and early 1900s. The problem was flies, mosquitoes and rats and the market was fostering them. Health officials finally issued an ultimatum to the market to clean up or close down. Newspapers prophesied the end but the market survived (The Sun Mar 7 1912.) Then in 1915 the hurricane hit and the market was severely damaged but again it survived (The Intelligencer Oct 1st 1915.) And it survived the threat of fire in December 1919 (New York Tribune Feb 8th 1920.) So by 1920 it may not have been regarded as the wondrous institution it once was, the tourist draw of New Orleans, but unlike many other landmarks of old New Orleans, such as the old St Louis Hotel and the French Opera House, it had survived.