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The Maxwell Street Market

People walk and browse through items for sale on Maxwell Street. This postcard shows the market in the early 1900s. Published  by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. of Chicago.

Maxwell Street was more than just a street market. It was a melting pot of different cultures and a place where people came to sell and buy a variety of items from shoelaces to ethnic foods. European Jews established the open-air street market near Roosevelt Road and Halsted Streets in the late 19th century. Other cultures soon started to come to the market, including the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians. People also came to the market to enjoy music by street performers. 

African Americans, who came to the neighborhood after World War I, brought with them a unique type of music: Mississippi-style Delta blues. It was later referred to as the “Chicago Blues,” after electric amplification was added. 

“Each succeeding culture brought the comforts of home with them--their traditions, their cooking and their music,” according to the Maxwell Street Foundation website. “Maxwell Street rang out with sounds that included ‘pitches’ in multiple languages, and no music is more tied to Maxwell Street than the blues.”

The city officially recognized the market in 1912. Small cottages that sold goods on Maxwell Street were first built up into solid two- and three-story storefront buildings, according to the foundation. In front of those stores, vendors would set up tables as they brought items to the site using pushcarts. There were also permanent stands or shacks on the sidewalk with windows that could close up at night. A market master collected small fees from the vendors. 

The back of the postcard indicates that $1 million in products were sold weekly at the market in the 1940s. Postcard published by A.C. Company of the U.S.

There were so many sellers and so much confusion on the street that the brick-and-mortar shop owners hired “pullers,” who would physically grab and hold a person’s arm and direct them inside the individual shops. 

Many foods we eat today were first sold at the market. One of the most popular items is the “Maxwell Street Polish” sausage sandwich. Many fast food places today also sell Maxwell Street-style hot dogs, which are also known  as Chicago-style hot dogs (topped with mustard, onions, relish, tomato, peppers, celery salt and a pickle spear but never ketchup). 

The neighborhood surrounding the market was often referred to as a “slum.” A few blocks to the north of Maxwell street was Hull House, one of the largest 19th century settlement houses, which was established by Jane Addams to help immigrants transition into American society. 

In 1965, the University of Illinois at Chicago was established near Harrison and Halsted Street. As the university began purchasing more properties in the area for the school, large portions of Maxwell Street were destroyed. 

The few remaining shops left on Halsted and Maxwell Streets were demolished or rehabbed in the 1990s. High-income housing was also built at the site. A new Maxwell Street Market, which is similar to a flea market, takes place on Des Plaines Street every Sunday between March and December.

One can find many photographs of Maxwell Street Market, but only a few postcards have been produced. Two postcards posted with this story show the congestion at the market. Another very old postcard with an image titled “The Ghetto, Chicago ” shows the types of produce sold there. Other photographs and videos can be viewed at the Maxwell Street Foundation website at

Many people came to the market on Sundays because other stores were closed on that day. Postcard published by Curt Teich & Co. of Chicago.


  1. i remember it being called 'jew town".a lot of jewish jewelers sold cheap items .

    1. Maxwell Street was nicknamed "Jewtown" not because of the Jewish merchants, but as a slur. People could "Jew Down" the price of merchants.

      The term "Jewtown or Jew Town" is an Anti-Semitic term, phrase or name.

      I will explain why. Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy, Lithuanian Plaza and Ukrainian Village, are actual Chicago neighborhood names in their greater communities. They are not racist, or derogatory names or terms, because they refer to a country and not a religion. Those neighborhood use their name to promote businesses and ethnic restaurants, willingly.

      If we take the term "Jewtown" and apply the same rules as other Chicago neighborhoods, then "Jewtown" should be named "Israelitown." To make the point clearer, If we take the name "Jewtown" and apply the slur to the Bronzeville neighborhood, it would be called "Ni**ertown."

  2. I never made it to the Maxwell Street market in person, but because of this scene from the Blues Brothers I imagined it as a place where people would spontaneously break out into song and dance.


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