Food on the Streets: (History of) Street vending in the District of Columbia

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Food on the Streets: Street vending in the District of Columbia

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*


In 19th century Washington sales of goods and produce involved the District government in a more visible way than today. Since the founding of the city, Washington had several municipal market houses, where sheltered space was leased to dealers and where weights and measures could be officially monitored. Thus, the merchant was provided a consistent (and safe and clean) location and the consumer given some measure of protection.

Although the markets were equally distributed across the city (Center, Eastern, and Western Markets — and in Georgetown), going to the market could be inconvenient. To fill that need, in stepped hawkers, hucksters, and street vendors. Hawkers were licensed in the City of Washington starting in 1829. Regulations for licensing hucksters appear in the 1853 code, the salient portion covering “. . . trading or business of huckstering, or buying, selling, or dealing in poultry, eggs, butter, wild game, vegetables, fruits, and other market stuffs, family provisions, horse-feed, or corn meal, and of vending or retailing any other such articles…[except fish].”

But licensing hucksters goes much further back. Correspondence in Thomas Jefferson’s papers show him issuing a pardon in 1805 to a licensed huckster, though on a matter unrelated to sales of goods.

The terms for who was selling on the street are confusing. Local historian Carlton Fletcher gives this useful definition: “A gardener was someone who had a market- or truck-garden, in which he grew produce to sell. A huckster bought produce in the morning, and resold it during the day; he could have a shop, or a wagon, or both, but to do either he had to have a license, and a regular stand in the market. Buying from a huckster was more convenient than going to market early in the morning, but prices were correspondingly higher.” [1]

“In Washington City – 1839”. Augustus Kollner’s engraving of a man with two horses and cart selling produce in the street. photo — Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

 Inevitably as sales of goods expanded beyond the confines of the market houses, selling goods in public space, whether sidewalk or roadway, became an issue. These dealers were not paying market license fees, giving them an unfair price advantage. They were occupying public space for private gain; was that even legal?


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“Vendors along B Street NW between 9th and 11th Streets, north of the new United States National Museum” (Oct. 9, 1909). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 79, National Museum building construction records, image No. SIA2009-1995.