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NOLA History: The French Market

Since 1791, there has been a marketplace along the river in the French Quarter. The French Market is still a focal point for shopping and entertainment, and is a great place to spend a summer afternoon.

The French Market (Photo: Paul Broussard)

By 1864, Italian immigrants had arrived in significant numbers to the French Quarter, Marigny, and Ninth Ward, many setting up businesses in the stalls of the French Market. Throughout the 1890s and well into the turn of the 20th Century, the French Market had a distinctive Italian flair to it. Italian families were such a strong economic and social force in the Quarter that St. Mary’s Church became known as “St. Mary’s Italian Church” to distinguish it from “St. Mary’s Assumption Church,” the church of the German community Uptown.

As population demographics shifted, the Italians moved out of the French Market proper, opening up Central Grocery and Progress Grocery, across the street on Decatur. The Perrone family moved the Progress Grocery business out to Metairie in the 1990s, and Central Grocery has become more of a sandwich shop than a grocery, serving their world-famous muffuletta.

Behind the Butcher’s Market were the stalls of the Seafood Market. Fisherman and oystermen would bring their product down from the lake via Bayou St. John and the Carondelet Canal, then by cart from the turning basin at Basin Street to the riverfront.

The original Vegetable Market (Halle des Légumes) was the main produce stand for the Quarter from the 1880s to the 1930s.  The entire French Market underwent extensive renovations in the 1930s, all part of several WPA projects to beautify the French Quarter.  Buildings were renovated and several that were destroyed in earlier years by fire or storms were re-constructed.  The Vegetable Market was re-located from the triangular patch by Ursulines Street to two blocks down, in what then became the Farmers’ Market.  The Public Belt Railroad worked in conjunction with truck farmers and others from Jefferson Parish and other points up the river to bring produce into the Quarter by rail.  Farmers also used the Orleans-Kenner RR interurban streetcar line to get from Kenner to Uptown, then switching to trucks to get their goods into the French Market.

Cafe du Monde
Café du Monde in the French Quarter (Photo: Rebecca Todd)

Café du Monde is a must-visit in the French Market, as it is the oldest tenant of the market, dating back to 1862.

The modern visitor to the French Market has one big advantage over the shoppers buying meat and vegetables for the evening’s dinner–anyone who gets tired of the heat can duck into one of many air-conditioned shops and restaurants on their way down to Esplanade Avenue and the Old US Mint!

For more information on this unique treasure of the French Quarter, be sure to check out the French Market on Facebook.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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