Terminal markets in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other cities brought together food and people in a bustling hub of activity that represented progress. ( Courtesy the National Archives )

1919 - 1944

Although an urban landscape seems like the antithesis of farming culture, urbanization actually helped spur the fresh produce industry in the 1920s and beyond. As more people moved to cities (U.S. census data showed that more than 50% of the country’s population lived in urban or suburban areas in 1920), central business districts—concentrated around terminal markets—became the core of commerce thanks to the convergence of railroads, waterways and roads. 

Called “the center of the produce universe” by The Packer in the 1940s, central markets represented the modern age of commerce. Fruit and vegetable growers did not have to be involved in the end sale to the customer any longer—they could offload in big markets and let wholesalers do the selling from there. Terminal markets brought together food and people in a bustling hub of activity that represented progress.

“The buildings—many of them grocery distribution warehouses—took in freight from riverboats on one side; on the other, a colorful and crowded scene of horses and wagons, barrels and carts (and later, trucks) picked up loads of fruits and vegetables,” notes Chicago public television’s WTTW website.

Terminal Markets Serve As a Transition

New York City’s Washington Market opened in 1921 and served as a marketplace for fresh fruits and vegetables until 1962, when produce operations were moved to consolidate food buying in the city. “Washington Market was the largest produce market in the country and the epicenter of an international agricultural supply chain reaching from small farmers the world over to consumers all over the Northeast,” noted tribecatrust.org, a nonprofit chronicling the history of the region. In New York City, historians estimate that about 4,000 farm wagons frequented the market daily during the 1880s, supplying more than 500 vendor stalls. It quickly outgrew the space, causing the city to upgrade in 1935 and later build Hunt’s Point Market in 1962.

Markets Breed Community

By the 1920s, several other big city markets were in place or planned, including the Philadelphia area’s Reading Terminal Market, the L.A. Terminal Market, and Chicago’s South Water Market, which opened in 1925. 

“Here [at South Water Market] farmers came from all over with their produce—lettuce, oranges, strawberries and apples; watermelons, grapes, cantaloupes, grapefruit and peaches; onions, pears and green and red peppers—transporting them in trucks, by rail in refrigerated boxcars or by boat via Lake Michigan. The crates of fruits and vegetables were unloaded on the auction floor, inspected and sold in a process that soon was supplying produce not only to the city but to the Midwest and, eventually, much of the East Coast,” noted The Chicago Tribune. Three decades later, the market was moving more than 500 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables annually.

City planners constructed Chicago’s South Water Market (which replaced an older one) as a bi-level facility, featuring wide alleys for increasing truck traffic (which made up less than 20% of produce arrivals before 1940). However, architects couldn’t have predicted the growth of tractor trailers, which would prove too tight for the newer facility. The Chicago International Produce Market would open decades later in 2001.

The Reading Terminal Market outside Philadelphia followed a grid of east-west aisles and north-south avenues. “By 1913 the market was booming, with 250 food dealers and 100 farmers occupying its stalls,” its website notes. 

It was also known for its state-of-the-art cooling for perishables. “Reading Terminal Market would boast that its refrigeration facility was by far the biggest in Philadelphia with its half-million cubic feet of space and 52 separate rooms, each cooled to individual temperatures, 15-25 degrees for meat and poultry, 34 degrees for fruits and vegetables,” notes  the market’s website. When cold storage came to the market a few years later, it was said to be able to accommodate 25,000 barrels of apples. 

In the West, the L.A. Terminal Market in Los Angeles found its footing in 1917 and was gradually expanded until it encompassed 30 acres along the Southern Pacific Railway in 1923.

“When the complex opened in the World War I era as Union Terminal Annex, it was the second-largest wholesale terminal in the world,” recorded the L.A. Times. “... The vast majority of fruit and produce business for the region was conducted there.” 

Then And Now

Terminal markets tracked alongside the fresh produce industry’s progress of the 1920s and 1930s, their presence serving as an anchor for the local communities of the day. 

While many older terminal market operations have moved or been upgraded, there’s a piece of the past to be preserved. Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Chicago’s South Water Market facilities stand as a testament to the hard-working produce dealers of old—both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Vendors at the Reading market sell locally grown fruits and vegetables in addition to other foods, crafts and more.

The original L.A. Terminal Market facility, now called the Seventh Street Produce Market, celebrated 100 years in 2017. Six days a week it serves customers as a traditional, albeit largely Latino-focused, produce market (leaving the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market nearby to handle larger volumes.) On Sundays the Seventh Street Market hosts local vendors in an open-air food market called Smorgasburg as developers reworked the space as one that melds wholesale, retail and the arts.