Lexington Market, originally known as Western or New Market, was started at the western edge of the city at the turn of the 19th century to take advantage of the trade with the recently opened Northwest Territory. The first market shed was built c. 1805 on land once belonging to John Eager Howard. It grew quickly along with the city, which was advantageously situated on the western most harbor along the East Coast. This access to transatlantic trade routes, then the railroads, were major factors to the growth of Baltimore through the 19th century. After a visit to the market, Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed it the “gastronomic capital of the world.”
The larger and more established public markets, like Centre, Hanover, and Broadway markets, were often used for court ordered auctions of enslaved people. Having been located at the edge of the city, there is not much evidence that such sales were common at Lexington Market. The only information found so far indicates that at least one such auction did take place here in 1838. A monument was recently erected here to memorialize the woman sold at that court-ordered auction and a runaway enslaved man who had worked at the market. Their names were Rosetta and Robert.
Hotels and taverns proliferated near public markets, including this area around Lexington Market. It was a common practice during this time to arrange business meetings in hotels and taverns, to such an extent that bartenders and inn keepers would take and relay messages for regular customers. The meetings could be business or social. Transactions discussed could be anything from starting a chapter of a fraternal organization to the selling and buying of real estate, farm animals, or enslaved people. Many slave traders got their start in this manner--Slatter, Woolfolk, and Purvis to name a few. An example of an ad from the early 19th century informed buyers of people “to apply at Mr. Lilly’s Tavern, Howard Street” and another directed buyers to “Fowler’s Tavern near the New Market, Lexington Street.” The latter of these might be William Fowler’s Sign of the Sunflower, which was located in this area.
Although the original intention of the market was to sell Maryland-grown produce, by the turn of the twentieth century, the market offered an international selection as thousands of immigrants moved to Baltimore, becoming both vendors and customers. The city kept the price to rent a stall at the market low to encourage aspiring business owners. This practice was particularly beneficial for immigrants who had few job opportunities upon entering the country. As a result, immigrant communities grew around Lexington Market and helped establish a diverse community in West Baltimore. The new products offered at the market contributed to the international fame it would attain at the turn of the century.
While the form of Lexington Market has changed dramatically over the decades — an early frame market shed was replaced in 1952 following a 1949 fire and the city significantly expanded the market in the 1980s — the community of vendors and locals continues to draw crowds of residents and tourists daily.