The term “flea market” has a cloudy origin. One popular theory is that the term is derived from Fly Market, one of New York City’s principal markets in the 18th century. A second popular theory is that the name comes from the English translation of “marché aux puces,” French for “market of the fleas.” A well-known 1860s outdoor market in Paris was named “marché aux puces” for the little parasites that would sometimes infest old furniture that was brought out for sale. There are others who believe the term flea market come from the transient nature of the markets and how they jump from location to location.
Whether or not there were any actual fleas involved in the naming of flea markets, the idea behind flea markets is practically as old as civilization itself: people gathering to sell used goods, handmade products, and household necessities. Contemporary American flea markets can trace their ancestry to Colonial-Era town markets where regular public gatherings offered a variety of wares. From small-town gatherings to the bustling public bazaars of New York and Boston, and the pop-up auctions of the Western frontier, markets were a necessary part of economic and social society.
Flea markets and their predecessors are also arguably one of the earliest and purest forms of American capitalism. Flea markets are a place where anyone can gather to sell new, used, or crafted goods largely unbothered by the government or larger institutions. This unencumbered free exchange marked by haggling, negotiations, and a general laissez-faire attitude persevered throughout history and is still a common denominator at today’s markets.
For centuries, flea markets have made positive impacts on lives and communities across the country. America’s oldest public market, New Orleans’ French Market, is a perfect example. What began as a Native American trading post in 1791 is now a cornerstone of the city’s economy and culture.
Assimilation into the American Dream
Immigrant communities often formed flea markets of the early 20th century. These business centers were a way for communities to build connections, trade goods, make money, and eventually assimilate into American society. By the 1950s and 60s, flea markets had entered popular culture, offering middle class Americans deals on second-hand goods and antiques. Russell Carrell, sometimes credited as the founder of the American flea market, opened up his backyard in Salisbury, Connecticut to antiques dealers and purchasers alike in 1957. What sounds like a commonplace event, was a novel idea at the time. His event was successful, and throughout the 1960s Carrell managed antique events throughout Connecticut. The concept soon took off nationwide. Celebrities of the time such as Andy Warhol and Barbra Streisand were often spotted at flea markets, helping to elevate the businesses into mainstream media. Though Carrell did not invent flea markets, he certainly did gentrify them, taking a concept that once existed mostly in urban, immigrant cities, and bringing it to the Connecticut countryside.
Rise of Niche Markets
The mid-century flea market boom also led to a variety of different types of flea markets. For example, flea markets centered on automobile hobbyists and enthusiasts became very popular. In fact, many flea markets of today still hold car shows and cater to this crowd. Technology markets, gun shows, book, and antique markets continued to flourish.
Swap Meet Souvenirs
The rise of middle-class general merchandise flea markets and swap meets also fueled America’s collectible craze. Everything from nostalgia items, figurines, vintage glass, war memorabilia, toys, coins, baseball cards, postcards, and more were and are a collector’s dream. More importantly, all of these things could be found at flea markets. This phenomenon went on well into the 1990s.
The Internet of Flea Markets
There’s no question the rise of the internet greatly impacted the flea market industry. Online shopping and auctioning affected every aspect of the retail business. Shoppers, who once scoured flea markets searching for certain collectibles, antique items, or even the lowest prices on everyday products, could now search on eBay and Amazon.
However, the internet is not all bad news for flea markets. For many bargain hunters and trade connoisseurs, the best bargains are still to be found in-person. The flea market industry is still a fairly transient one. The best deals are often very limited. And the best collector’s items are often best purchased from someone with whom you have a personal relationship. The internet also allows market owners to advertise to a wider audience and attract new shoppers.
Flea Markets as Experience
However, as we all know, not every flea shopper is an antique aficionado or a bargain hunter on a particular mission. So, in an age of Amazon, what is driving today’s flea market shoppers? For many, it’s the experience. Rob Sieban, the owner of United Flea Markets, tells The Merchandiser Group, “Today’s flea market consumer demands more. They can get value in many different places that they couldn’t get before, such as Walmart® and dollar stores. The modern flea operator needs to provide a combination of value and entertainment. If people are dedicating time to shop at a flea market there has to be great price points and selection, but they also have to have fun doing it.”
Many of today’s flea markets fill this need by offering live music, diverse food selections, carnival rides, and adult beverages. There has also been an increase in popup markets, calling themselves everything from artisan fairs, alfresco bazaars, night markets, and other trendy descriptors. This rebranding effort capitalizes on feelings of exclusivity and limited-time offers while still supporting local businesses. By branding flea markets as an event rather than a stagnant retail space, and focusing on experience, markets appeal to the human element of retail, a void that the internet and Amazon are not equipped to fill.
The Heart of Community
Flea markets are an epitome of small business. It’s common for vendor booths and entire markets to be passed down through a family generation after generation. However, there’s no denying that the flea markets of our parents and grandparents are not the same as the flea markets of today. What is the same are the communities they build. In an age of technology isolation and increasing societal and governmental regulations, flea markets offer a unique opportunity for building interpersonal relationships and a self-made business all at the same time.