Let’s Make a Deal: Maxwell Street Market

maxwell street market
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Before there was Target or Wal-Mart, even before clearance items or sales racks, there was Maxwell Street Market. A bargainer’s haven, the little thoroughfare on the near west side was a place for working class citizens of Chicago to find all the things they needed at a reasonable price. It’s hailed as the first opportunity Americans were given to shop cheaply, and is still open for business every Sunday morning.

In the late 1800s, people from across the globe began immigrating to Chicago, many of whom found themselves on the near west side seeking refuge in and around the Jane Addams Hull House. In search of employment and an income, some would set up pushcarts Sunday mornings along nearby streets. Items were sold at discounted prices from retail stores downtown, which sparked quite the interest with those who had little money to burn. As the market gained notoriety, they expanded their setups to include card tables, blanket-covered sidewalk displays, kiosks and even a few stores.

By 1910 Maxwell Street Market was official. You could buy just about anything on Maxwell: clothes, produce, appliances, tools, even cars. And there was no beating their prices. The secret to their deals were that most of the items were hi-jacked from rail cars at the nearby train depots. Eager to get rid of the goods without any trouble, sellers would let them go at incredibly low prices. Some vendors would pick up world imports, primarily from Asian countries, sold on Roosevelt Road and sell them at a smaller markup than downtown retailers.

Maxwell Street began to have a huge economic impact. By giving lower income families a choice in who to shop from, it recognized their buying power. It affected sales in bigger markets, thereby jumpstarting a healthy competition among businesses. This trend continued across the United States in the years following and eventually gave way to the discount stores we see today. Because Maxwell Street rejected stand alone prices, we now have dozens of stores to choose from for our shopping needs.

Today the neighborhood surrounding Maxwell Street is known as University Village, an area primarily taken up by buildings affiliated with University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The market is still held every Sunday, just blocks away from it’s original site. Now located on Des Plaines between Roosevelt Road and Polk Street, it’s complete with small booths with tables and canvas overhangs. The market maintains its eclectic feel, offering everything from fresh vegetables to leather belts to power tools to sports jerseys. The booths are run by families who are as eager to set up their items as they are to wave as you pass by. Come rain or shine, Maxwell street opens up at 7 a.m. and covers four city blocks. Still a diverse community, the market brings people from every neighborhood and ethnic background. They work together to create the same camaraderie and unity as there was back in the 1800’s. After all this time, the people of Maxwell Street Market still have the same mindset; to make a fair trade that leaves everyone feeling like money was well spent.

Jessie Stegner

About Jessie Stegner

Jessie has been living in Chicago since 2007 and loved every minute of it. Her only setback is, due to growing up in Sierra Madre, California, she can't feel her toes between the months of November and June. With a degree in Theatre from the University of Colorado at Boulder and training from Second City and Improv Olympic, Stegner can usually be found on a stage somewhere trying to make people laugh. She enjoys falling asleep to the sound of the El train, drinking Blue Moon, jogging on the lovely streets of Ravenswood, eating Thai food and watching White Sox baseball.

One Comment

  • Nancy Van Roy
    September 18, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    I remember fondly of my mother taking me to Maxwell Street in the 1950’s to get a new pair of ice skates, if not for the prices there I would have had to go without. I loved growing up in Chicago, also in Evergreen Park before moving to Northern CA in 1959.

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