Summer Beckley finds the facts on some of marketplace’s vendors.
The aisles of Reading Terminal Market bustled with college students, elderly couples and young families. A thousand scents filled the air, from the enticing aroma of freshly baked soft pretzels to the exotic fragrance of strange spices. My eyes couldn’t decide whether to focus on the tempting chocolate truffles in front of me or the huge, bizarre piggy bank in the Center Court.
Located at 12th and Arch streets in Center City, Reading Terminal Market is wonderfully overwhelming. Covering nearly two acres, with 80 diverse vendors, the market has been an integral part of Philadelphia culture for more than a century.
“The Reading Terminal Market is a Philadelphia landmark and a must-see for visitors to our city,” Alison Tress, a Temple alumna and head of advertising for the market, said. “For students fortunate enough to be attending school in Philadelphia, the sights, sounds and especially tastes of the Reading Terminal Market can be experienced often.”
Every day, thousands of people enjoy such vendors as Bassetts Ice Cream, Terralyn and Miller’s Twists, but not all of them know the history of the Reading Terminal Market itself.
I remember visiting the market as a child – nose plastered to the glass cases, eyes wide at the sight of chocolate-covered potato chips or tiny porcelain elephants. Now, with majors in history and communications, I am entranced by the wealth of history that waits to be discovered at Reading Terminal.
Markets have been an integral part of Philadelphia since its founding. Rows of merchants used to line the roadway now fittingly known as Market Street. By the mid-1800s, this collection of open-air markets was seen as a health hazard and was dismantled. The Reading Terminal Market, as we know it today, opened in 1892.
With the Industrial Revolution came the expansion of the railroad, and in 1893, the Reading Railroad Terminal opened above the market, bringing it unprecedented traffic and booming success.
Along with the rest of the country, the Reading Terminal suffered through the Great Depression, but it burst to life again during World War II. With the introduction of food rationing, more and more people came to the market, appreciating the variety and quantity of food it offered.
During the 1960s, as economic problems haunted the railway system, the market faltered. In 1976, after bankruptcy, the Reading Railroad ceased operations as a railroad. Reading Terminal Market was on the brink of closing as well.
“Bassetts Ice Cream is the last remaining original merchant in the Reading Terminal Market,” said Michael Strange, the president of Bassetts, which has endured generations at Reading Terminal.
“Founded by my great-great-grandfather, Lewis D. Bassett … Bassetts Ice Cream is a fifth-generation family owned business,” Strange said proudly.
Throughout the 1970s, there was discussion about the disposal of the market and the selling of the terminal building. In the 1980s, the Reading Company reorganized as a real estate business and poured its energy into revitalizing the market.
After years of negotiations, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority was created to transform what had once been the train shed above the market into a lavish entranceway to the new convention center. Along with this new construction, help was promised to bring the market back to life.
Stands like Terralyn – Bath, Body, Spirit may not have been in business very long but still have fascinating stories. Elizabeth Eaby, a self-described “kind of” retiree, works at the stand selling its exquisite soaps, lotions and bath salts, as well as jewelry and her own photography. Although Eaby has only been working at the Reading Terminal Market for a year, she recalled generations of involvement with the market.
“I’ve lived in Philly my whole life,” Eaby said. “I have a lot of connection to the market. My dad passed away recently, but when he was alive, he would come here.”
In addition, Eaby spoke of connections to the railway business that shaped the Market’s early years.
“My grandfather worked for the Reading Railroad,” she said. “I remember him taking me through here.
“You get all kind of people through here,” she added, observing the crowded aisles. “I love working here. It’s really interesting.”
Miller’s Twists is another relatively new business, but it continues a long tradition.
“[Miller’s Twists has] only been in business for almost a year,” Roger Miller, the store’s owner, said. “I bought the business from Fisher’s, who was in the Reading Terminal since the early 1980s. They were the first Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish stand in the market.”
Miller recalled a long history with Reading Terminal.
“I had worked in the market for 10 years as the manager of the Dutch Eating Place, which [was] right next to Fisher’s. I decided to change the name, but I brought along a lot of the employees and tried to keep a lot of the same pretzel principles.”
Miller said he is proud of the quality of his food.
“Our pretzels are made from scratch,” he added. “We mix the flour, let the dough rise, roll and bake the pretzel all at the market.”
Today, the Reading Terminal Market once again stirs with life. From homemade Amish pies to fresh poultry and beautiful flowers to ethnic dishes and Philly cheesesteaks, the variety is amazing. The market draws approximately 100,000 visitors every week, both Philadelphians getting their week’s worth of groceries and tourists exploring the city.
Temple students should use their time in Philadelphia to become familiar with the market.
“The Reading Terminal Market has so much going on,” Eaby said. “It’s a really fascinating place.”
Summer Beckley can be reached at email@example.com.