The History of Philadelphia’s Headhouse Market and Shambles


On June 18, 2015, neighbors gathered at the Twisted Tail tavern to hear Michael Schreiber speak about the history of Headhouse Square, on S. Second Street in Philadelphia. The following article has been excerpted from his talk, with some updating. For further reading, see the articles on this website dealing with the history of the Mermaid and the Twisted Tail taverns.

The market area around Philadelphia’s Headhouse Square was known as the New Market for most of its history because it was the first neighborhood offshoot of the great High Street Market, which ran down the center of what is now called Market Street.

In the 18th century, the High Street Market was seen as a marvel for the great quantity and variety of food offered for sale. This reflected the fact that the city lay adjacent to some of the most fertile land on the Eastern Seaboard, and that the surrounding countryside was inhabited by a class of small farmers who had the needs and the means to transport their crops for cash sale in the city. But since space for selling was limited at the High Street Market, it was logical as the city grew to create separate markets in other neighborhoods.

Shippen and Wharton

The New Market was established in 1744/45 to serve the neighborhood of Society Hill, in the southern section of the city. Although Society Hill was still not highly populated, it was growing quickly, and residents expressed a desire for a nearby location to buy food. Two private merchants, Joseph Wharton and Edward Shippen, founded, financed, and managed the New Market. They persuaded owners of property along the east side of the street to donate the front portions of their land (which probably required demolition of a few buildings) so that Second Street could be widened to accommodate the market in the center of the street.

Shippen and other landowners profited by selling land along Second Street for new buildings and shops. Wharton and Shippen also rented spaces in the market to farmers and small merchants such as fishmongers, basket weavers, and potters. A large percentage of the sellers were women, as the men remained behind to work the farms and catch the fish. Butter and other dairy products were sold almost entirely by women.

Soon, the city took over the market, and a clerk was assigned to collect fees and to enforce the rules on hours of operation, types of merchandise to be sold, and use of equitable weights and measures.

In the beginning, the market extended only for about half a block on both sides of Lombard Street. By the 1760s, a series of brick pavilions had been constructed down the middle of the road, providing shelter for many of the stalls. Later, this was supplanted by a central brick arcade (the “shambles”), similar to the one that is there now. About 1795, the market was enlarged to cover the entire two-block distance from Pine Street down to South Street. The line of market stalls also continued around the corner onto Pine Street.

Also in 1795, a two-story brick “head house” was constructed at the South Street end of the market. The building’s arcaded ground floor had cupboards to hold equipment for volunteer fire brigades, while the cupola contained a bell—which tolled on Sundays and to announce the opening of the market days. A twin building was constructed in 1805 at the Pine Street end of the shambles. Two sides of the Pine Street head house were adorned with a clock face; residents of the neighborhood raised money to purchase the clockworks. The second story contained a hall where political meetings were often held. On the ground floor, chambers on each side of the arches supplied storage space for the engines of three fire companies—the Hope, the Southwark, and the Fellowship.

Market Days

Market days at the New Market were on Tuesdays and Fridays. Farmers from outlying districts would often arrive the day before the market was to take place. They would unload their wagons and lay out their displays in the evening—leaving time for carousing at the local taverns until a late hour.

At dawn on the market day, the streets were already filled with merchants and farm people hawking their goods to local householders. After 10 am, a less established group of hucksters—most often widows and elderly and disabled persons—was permitted by law to sell trinkets and used merchandise from carts and barrels at the edge of the market area. Many free Black men and women served as street vendors, often dispensing oysters on the shell, hot soup, and other delicacies.

For many years in the 18th century, Philadelphia’s markets featured three-day fairs in May and November. On those occasions, hucksters came from far and wide to sell their dry goods, sweets, toys, and books.

On the opening day of the fair, a herald addressed the crowd from a platform, reading a proclamation from the mayor. The herald would carefully list the prohibited activities, such as drinking alcoholic beverages within the shambles and racing horses in nearby streets. Eventually, however, rowdiness at the seasonal fairs caused them to be shut down. The last great fair was held in 1787.

Shops selling clothing, furniture, tools, tobacco, and chinaware lined Second Street on both sides of the market shambles. In the 1790s, many exiles from France and French-speaking colonials from Haiti opened shops and restaurants along the street.  It was not at all uncommon for women—most of them widows—to operate commercial businesses in Philadelphia in that era.

With the revolution in Haiti, many white colonial planters brought their house slaves into exile with them, who—according to Pennsylvania law—had to be set free after six months. The presence of immigrants from the West Indies brought colorful costuming to Philadelphia, which would have been seen in the New Market. Clothing in these styles would have been obtainable in the shops on Second Street that were operated by free Black people.

A Devastating Fire

A little before midnight on January 24, 1794, flames broke out in a frame building containing a carpenter’s shop near the southwest corner of Second and Pine Streets, opposite the market shambles. The fire quickly spread to the wooden house next door, which was also consumed, while several neighboring houses of brick were greatly damaged. Since a high wind prevailed, there were fears that the fire would spread to the market sheds and beyond.

At the height of the fire, the roof of the brick house at the corner of Second and Pine was ignited. Flames licked the top beams of the garret, threatening the entire structure. But a brave young carpenter was able to ascend a ladder to the garret, despite the fact that the steps were slippery with ice; water from the engines had frozen instantly in the bitter cold. The carpenter dashed out the garret windows with a pole, allowing the firemen to force water inside. That building still stands today, and serves as a restaurant.

“Urban Renewal”

During the heady days of so-called “urban renewal,” in the middle years of the 20th century, a large number of 18th and early 19th-century buildings were torn down—displacing the residents and businesses that occupied them. The market shambles between Lombard and South, including what remained (the ground story) of the 1795 head house at South Street, were demolished in order to create street-surface parking. A number of old houses were also torn down along Second Street and on the adjacent Stamper Street; a parking garage was built in their place.

According to city plans of the 1960s, much more of Second Street was supposed to be demolished, with an interchange between the Delaware Expressway (I-95) and the proposed Crosstown Expressway, which would have destroyed South Street, built in their place. Front Street and all its buildings below Pine Street were to be wiped off the map. However, strong neighborhood protests defeated the plans for the Crosstown Expressway. In the end, while many historic buildings were wantonly demolished in the area, a large amount were saved and eventually restored.

The head house at Pine Street still remains, and the shambles behind it are used for an outdoor food market on Saturdays, as well as for special events. During the COVID crisis of 2020-2021, the shambles have been employed as a sheltered eating spot for the customers of nearby restaurants. Historic buildings stand on either side of the market—notably the 1787 grand townhouse of the wealthy merchant John Ross (later the residence of the Spanish consul, the Marquis of Casa Irujo), on the corner of Second and Pine. Slightly further down the street is an old tavern from 1787 (once called The Plough), which used to serve farmers who sold their produce in the market. It still functions as a tavern, and by walking through its arched entryway, one can see a bakehouse dating from the 1750s.

In early 2021, as this article appears, the Headhouse Square area is being changed again—but in a positive manner. The median strip in the middle of Second Street formerly used for automobile parking, is being widened to create two landscaped plazas—one at South Street and another at Lombard—with trees, benches, and fanciful pavilion structures.

The drawing by Frank H. Taylor shows the New Market head house in the 1920s. In the background is the old mansion of John Ross. Courtesy of The Library Company of Pennsylvania for Michael Schreiber’s book, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America” (copyright 2016).

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