Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.
Don’t call it a rummage sale. It’s not a tag sale or a swap meet, or a street faire. It’s a Flea Market, and we love them.
In case you were wondering, I don’t know exactly why it’s called a flea market, and there are a few different stories as to how the name came to be. The markets themselves have existed for millennia. Wherever you have large populations of people crammed into cities, you end up with congregations of vendors. Fishmongers, farmers, cooks, resellers, handmade enthusiasts, you name it. But the term “flea,” and the culture that comes with it, has its own story. Or three.
17th century France. The streets are a mess. Literally. Architecturally and infrastructurally, the world is leaving Paris behind. The streets are filthy, narrow, and crowded. You could try to get a wagon through from one end of the lane to the other, but before you could say “hey, what are the early symptoms of cholera?” you’d be stuck, thanks to all of the people, oh and the markets.
It seems that many entrepreneurial types were blocking entire roads in order to set up and sell their wares. The situation became such a common annoyance, that Voltaire even described them as “established in narrow streets, showing off their filthiness, spreading infection and causing continuing disorders.”
About 50 years later, the first democratically elected French President, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of the guy you’re thinking of, promised to fix the roads, build better housing and facilities, and basically do everything with the city that would have made Voltaire dance in his pretty pants back in 1793. A side note on LNB here, he had already tried to start a coup twice in France. Both attempts were humiliatingly ineffectual. No, really, look them up its really sad how badly they went. He was banished to England for the first attempt, and even printed up flyers for the second try. That time he barely made it to shore before he was thrown in jail and ridiculed in the British and French newspapers. Mocking his shortcomings being one of the only things the French and English have ever agreed upon.
After escaping from, ok this is for real, a life sentence of imprisonment in the Fortress of Ham, he went back to a pretty booming social life in England, where his friends would make fun of him behind his back. After hearing of the French Revolution, he decided that A. Getting elected was probably easier than overthrowing a monarchy with 60 dudes and a sloop, and B. that his friends would probably have to stop making fun of him if he was president. He, due largely to his name recognition and campaign promises, won over 74% of the vote.
Problem is, running a country for the first time is rough. Especially for a guy who got elected by being a watered down version of a guy who went from ruling most of the western world, to having his, uh, “royal scepter” kept in a jar under some guy’s bed in New Jersey. The new president was quickly on his way to becoming the old president, without having fulfilled much of his promised work. The country’s new constitution limited him to one term, as it’s citizens were still going through “Monarchy-Induced PTSD,” But, in keeping with a strong family tradition, he decided he would become the leader that no one had asked for, had himself another little coup, and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.
With his newfound ability to do whatever the hell he pleased, Napo the Third hired Georges Eugène Haussmann, an architect of sorts with the Typest of A personalities to fix the city. His main instruction from the Emperor was, “to give it air and open space, to connect and unify the different parts of the city into one whole, and to make it more beautiful.” Which is a very Napoleonic way of saying “Make some room, oh, and please do something about the smell.”
Within a few years, because he was working for an Emperor and not a president, Haussmann was able to complete a near entire renovation of the city. The end result was broader streets, cleaner air, more light, some really breathtaking infrastructure, and a lot of really annoyed, former street vendors who were now sitting around, watching horses poop in their former places of business.
The vendors ended up Fleeing the main part of the city. Setting up shop in the North of Paris, outside the Porte de Clignancourt. Which was a big gate, for us non french types. The Market was a bit seedy, but was becoming known as a great place to get deals on some really cool stuff. This should be starting to sound familiar to those of you who’ve been wondering where I’m going with all of this.
As time went on, the market gained legitimacy in the eyes of the French people, and eventually the government. The space was cleaned up and made safer, roads and paths were constructed to and around the area, and the market to which the former street vendors had fled, became known as the marche aux puces, aka, the Market of the Fleas. The Market outlasted Haussmann, who was ousted from his position in 1870, and even good ol’ Napoleon the Third, who despite having a longer reign than the original Napoleon, still ranks Second on the list of world’s best Napoleons. Fourth place goes to Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II: Electric Waterloo. Third place is actor Terry Camilleri, who played Napoleon in 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
So the vendors had to “flee” to their new market. That’s the story, right? Well not entirely. The second theory as to the origin is a pretty literal one. Any place that sells second hand furniture in the 1800s is gonna have, well, parasites. Since the Marche Aux Puce had officially become A Thing, capital A capital T, in 1855, actual fleas were often thrown in free with a purchase of anything upholstered, cloth, or fur-based. So it’s entirely possible, and likely, that the name is a somewhat derogatory wink at the lousy merchandise sold at the market.
The third and honestly equally viable story of why we call flea markets flea markets comes from, like so many excellent things, Manhattan. Strolling around New York City, even today, two things become clear. One, lots of people there are trying to sell you stuff. Two, there are a buttload of things whose names have Dutch origins. Gansevoort, Dycker, Harlem, Bronx, Brooklyn, Dutch Kills, English Kills, anything Kills, Staten, Stuyvesant, Wyckoff, Bushwick, and everyone’s favorite, Spuyten Duyvil. Yeah, good luck googling THAT one.
So when someone tells you that there used to be an open air market in lower Manhattan, back in the 18th century, when it was all valleys and swamps, then you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn it was named the “vlie” market, spelled “V L I E” or “V L Y” which was Dutch for “Valley,” or “swamp.” As time ran on and Dutch words for things became Anglicized, it was called the “Fly Market,” spelled “F-L-Y,” and eventually became what we know as a “Flea” Market. Supposedly.
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In New York City, Paris, and all over the world, Flea Markets exist and thrive to this day. You can still find great deals on previously-owned goods, food, surplus stock from manufacturers, handmade items, and just about everything in between. Shopping at a flea is part of a culture where thriftiness, utilitarianism, and tight budgets meets local-mindedness, fringe design, and forward thinking consumerism. What might be considered high and low culture, for lack of better terms, mix into a very unique social ecosystem. Selling at flea markets, especially habitually or as a career, can provide a very unique look into the types of people who exist outside of mainstream consumer culture, whether they think they belong there or not.
I’ve worked in this world. I’ve shopped, sold, and supplied flea markets over the years. Going from assisting at estate sales, to selling the leftover or high-end goods from those sales at the flea markets, to building my own designs from the unsold rubbish from the sales and, you guessed it, selling them in a booth at the flea. The culture and experience of my time among the “Flea People,” as I’ve come to affectionately call them, has led me to where I am today, talking to you.
When I say, “flea people,” I mean the sellers, the “garage sale dump-outs” who are just trying to make some space, but live on a lonely street where no one sees their signs, the guy who you’re pretty sure lives in his van, among the piles of rusty tools and bits of steel, eating a bowl of soup in August, cooked on a camper stove he definitely found the day before. The entrepreneurs, with their printed banners and big smiles, honing their product pitches and learning what it truly means to believe in yourself when no one else does. The down-on-their-luck collectors, having to turn a lifetime of passionate curation into a few lucky sales just to climb a little bit further out of debt. The tweakers, peering out from behind the sliding door of the minivan, selling someone’s old something, just to get back to escaping life for a while. The Horde Hunters, who spent hundreds of hours combing through piles of other people’s stuff just so their booth could have the best junk. College students, selling candles made in beer bottles that smell like a party, Tool-polishers, Social media marketers with the most instagrammable booths, underwear hagglers, the intensely neurotic vinyl dealer, the lifers, the “we cant do anything else’ers,” the first timers. All together, all selling, all sweating it out, praying it cools down, but not enough to rain or snow, as the shoppers circle.
And the shoppers, of course, the other half. The day-trippers, looking for something to do while they digest their lunch. The early-risers, who ask about every item you unpack as you unpack them. The tough negotiators, who only have $5 to spend, but that $5 is wrapped in a wad of twenties. The real-deal seekers, veterans of a war of words and numbers where the prize is less about the item and more about what it takes to obtain it. The know it alls, who have archived more information about what you’re selling than you ever cared about, and need to make sure you realize it too. The cherry pickers, the complainers, the entitled locals who think weather, bad smells, terrible location, and lack of bathrooms affect prices, and the newbies, who don’t realize that weather, bad smells, terrible location, and lack of bathrooms affect prices. The old school hagglers, the traders, the whales, the sticky fingered toddlers and their always-coughing parents, the dog walkers, the walked-by-doggers, the shakers, the breakers, and the thieves, the polite old timers, the interested teens, the wonderful neighbors, and sometimes, even the mayor.
Every market has a story. The life and culture surrounding these fleas is distinct from any other I’ve experienced, and I believe it’s because of the unique brand of people who participate, and how heavily the entire structure of the market itself depends on them. A loose arrangement of social agreements, mostly unspoken, by the types of people you won’t find anywhere else, except probably at another flea market.
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Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.