Where does the term ‘flea market’ come from, anyway?
By Corbin Crable
Some words and phrases in our lexicon lack a clear explanation for their existence – and that includes the term ‘flea market,’ a place where sellers put their gently used items up for sale to collectors.
According to a 2023 article from Mental Floss’ Matt Soniak, though the markets themselves have existed in some form since the ancient world, some historians believe the term may have been born from the street bazaars of Paris. The story goes that sometime in the late 19th century, a shopper “looked upon the market with its rags and old furniture and dubbed it le marché aux puces (“market of fleas”), because of shoppers’ perceptions that some of the more time-worn wares sold there carried the little bloodsuckers,” Soniak writes.
A little more than one hundred years have passed since ‘flea market’ first made an appearance in writing, making it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1922 after the book “In Europe” stated, “It is called the ‘Flea’ Market because there are so many second hand articles sold of all kinds that they are believed to gather fleas.”
Whatever the answer, the outdoor French bazaars that had existed for hundreds of years were demolished as the city grew and new streets and buildings went up. Once the bazaar owners were forced to set up shop elsewhere, their operations became known as “flee” markets in English; it is unknown exactly when or why that spelling morphed into “flea” markets.
A third possibility, Soniak writes, is that the term was born in Colonial America, and that the Dutch traders who settled in what would become New York established an open-air market called the Vlaie Market, so-called due to their markets’ location on swamp land.
“English speakers pronounced the word with an f up front (and sometimes a long l on the end), and the Fly/Flea Market and other places like it eventually all became flea markets,” Soniak writes.
A flea market is seen on the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, MO. Image courtesy of the Missouri State Fair Foundationpast year. (Image courtesy of Corbin Crable)
In his U.S. Flea Market Directory, author Albert LaFarge writes that the flea market of today “is a modern version of a phenomenon that has endured throughout history in all civilized societies – wherever there is a high concentration of people, there will be market days when they assemble for the exchange of goods and services.”
According to the Hollis Flea Market, which has operated in New Hampshire since 1964, there are currently more than 5,000 flea markets across the country, with more than one million vendors and 100 million shoppers annually. It seems the ancient tradition of flea markets (or, if you’d prefer, swap meets or open-air markets) continues today and shows no signs of slowing down.