New Orleans Tricentennial Series: The French Market (Le Vieux Marché)

08:27 March 27, 2018
By: Kimmie Tubré
New Orleans Tricentennial Series: The French Market
300 years ago in 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, arrived in a foreign land and settled on its highest point. That highest point, now Jackson Square, would soon become the city of New Orleans. From that moment, the city faced fires, hurricanes, battles, slavery, and a number of other lows. Despite the many lows, somehow, someway, New Orleans has managed to become one of the most uniquely cultured places in the world. In fact, in 2018, the year of its 300th birthday, New Orleans was named the number one place to visit.

During these past 300 years, the city has created some of the best cuisine, most influential music, and most sensational artists and artwork, and has forced the world to embrace its one-of-a-kind Creole and Cajun cultures. New Orleans has become a city filled with people who not only have pride in themselves, but also have pride in their city. 

One New Orleans staple encompasses all that NOLA represents, and that place is the French Market. Filled with so much history, progression, and culture, it is only fair to mention it during a year of celebrating New Orleans.​

Le Vieux Marché

Here’s to 300 years of the French Market.

It’s true, the French Market isn’t exactly 300 years old. In fact, the market has resided in the same location since 1791, leaving it 73 years shy of the tricentennial mark. So why are we celebrating the French Market? 

While in recent years, the French Market has become more of a tourist attraction filled with diverse vendors and fun souvenirs, the French Market, being America’s oldest public market, has a rich history that is closely connected to the city and how it has thrived and progressed over the last 300 years. 

Beginning as a Native American trading post, the French Market faced its own personal struggles in its earliest years. The same fires, hurricanes, and political issues that plagued the city also heavily affected the French Market, as did the many years of rocky rulings and battles between French and Spanish for dominance. After the Louisiana Purchase, the market became a trading destination for ships traveling in from around the world.

One of those traded goods grew into an important staple in the French Market. That staple was coffee. There were many things sold and traded at the market: meats, jewels, beads, vegetables, herbs, spices, handmade crafts, and rice. But the coffee sold by the African American and Creole women of the market became a go-to item, especially for the workers in the area. It is said that coffee “played a central role in the life of the market.”

By the late 1800s, the market began to grow and expand. One of the expansions came in 1870, when architect Joseph Abeilard built a structure called the Bazaar Market. This market featured a butcher’s market, a fruit and vegetable market, and a fish market, along with many other goods for sale.

It was during this time when immigrants of Sicilian roots migrated to New Orleans. Upon their entrance, they made a name for themselves in the vegetable markets of the French Market. Many of those merchants of Italian heritage maintain their spot in the French Market today.

After the devastating 1915 hurricane, the Bazaar Market was destroyed and wasn’t restored until 1930. Originally, the market was restored for the sale of foods and produce, but since the 70s, that space has been the home to many retail vendors selling everything from souvenirs to art, candles, jewelry, and clothing. In 1978, Mayor Ernest N. Dutch Morial decided to be a part of the French Market’s growing improvements. Several of his enhancements not only expanded the market, but also brought it closer to the river and opened a gate for more attractions. He is best remembered for opening up the pedestrian plaza known as Dutch Alley to more commerce and events. 

The market continues to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in New Orleans. Its long pathway starts at the world-famous Café Du Monde and ends near Esplanade Avenue at the foot of Elysian Fields. 

In recent years, the market has become far more than a retail space. The French Market corporation is dedicated to keeping the market’s history alive by educating and entertaining millions each year. 

Why would one include the French Market in the tricentennial celebration? Well, it is a vital part of our history and culture, and a celebration of 300 years of surviving in a location surrounded by water and swamps. It is living proof of the endurance and pride of the city. It is a place where you can see history right in front of your eyes. Most importantly, it is as naturally New Orleans as you can get.

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