British Sergeant and a Guardsman shopping in Bailleul (France), 1914-1920, Photographer unknown, National Library of Scotland, CC BY-NC-SA

Not too keen on shopping? Then a market or fair might be more to your liking. For many centuries – and particularly from the 19th century onwards – markets have offered the freshest, the newest and the best-priced goods on colourful stalls in a convivial atmosphere.

Usually held on the main street of a neighbourhood, markets or street fairs seldom stretch more than a few blocks. Their main point of attraction are the booths manned by weathered traders selling daily necessities - from fresh fruit, meat and dairy to shoes, stockings, fabrics and pet food. Some streets function as permanent markets.

This interesting image was taken by the celebrated French fraternal photographer-duo Étienne and Antonin Neurdein (1846-1914). A Tunisian souk - a permanent marketplace in its own right - is portrayed as a corridor of light and shadows, articulated by the cobblestones below, the beams above and the stalls with traders on the sides.

Cobblers Souk in Tunisia, circa 1900, Neurdein Frères/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright
Cobblers Souk in Tunisia, circa 1900, Neurdein Frères/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

Street fairs vary greatly in character, even within different quarters of the same city. They reflect the atmosphere and history of a neighbourhood, and are cherished by the local community as an important aspect of its identity. Some markets have even become something of a tourist attraction.

In Paris, the “Foire au pain d’épice” – a fair so famous that it has its own song – is a must-see for travellers who want to experience life in the City of Light first hand. At the heart of it is, as the name indicates, ‘pain d’épice’ or gingerbread. Originally produced by monasteries and depicting religious subjects, the spicy bake became an overall favorite in 19th century France. At the annual Easter fair, the nation’s best market workers gathered to extol the virtues of their sweets. Next to shopping, visitors could enjoy entertaining attractions, such as this traveling museum of natural history with “rare, living animals”.

La foire aux Pains d'Epices: museum, 1890-1900,  Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright
La foire aux Pains d'Epices: museum, 1890-1900, Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

During the 20th century, as transportation became better organised and most cities had a wide array of shops, street fairs became less important from a commercial point of view. While many perished, others changed focus, turning from weekly grocery destinations to special events with a social, cultural, religious or charitable dimension. Seasonal fairs, celebrating the harvest, spring or family holidays, have continued to be popular as well.

This enthusiastic visitor is scrutinizing the toys on offer at the Christmas fair in Gamages, Holborn. The people standing in the back, the little girl up front and the tiny dolls in the house make for a clever visual play with scale and dimensions.

Country fairs have managed to keep drawing in visitors too. Such fairs or fetes are traditionally opened by a local dignitary. Just having inaugurated the Agricultural Fair in Heston, this mayor and his party representatives take a tour on a carousel while attempting to casually pose for pictures.

Today, county, agricultural and livestock fairs with homemade refreshments, family entertainment and competitions of all sorts - from pie baking and flower-arranging to pageants for pigs and jumping shows for rabbits - remain popular throughout Europe and the United States.