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THE YANKEE PEDDLER

We can't say that we've ever seriously watched the QVC home shopping channel on the box, although we've caught glimpses surfing by on the lookout for something palatable to watch. By all accounts, however, TV huckstering is quite successful and lots of people call and order the things being waved at them on the screen. This purports to be part of the great electronic communications wave of the future, whereby we will find more and more of our acquisition of knowledge and objects being brought to us in the comfort of our fireside (or rather glowing screen-side).  This technological invasion may appear revolutionary at first glance, but it can also be seen as a revival of an ancient practice that has almost disappeared in America in the past half-century or so. In essence, the QVC channel and its congenitors are simply the old-fashioned door-to-door salesmen and peddlers brought up to date. Of course we now have only the image of a huckster instead of one in the flesh to deal with, but the essence is the same.

It wasn't all that long ago that there was a steady stream of people coming to our doors offering goods and services. Even doctors made house calls. Also, every neighborhood had its own small grocery store and other shops where the necessities could be retrieved on foot. Beyond that there was the Sears' catalogue for those things that weren't available in one's immediate vicinity. Then the tide turned and it became necessary to get into cars and chase off to shops, offices and malls after the things that were once brought to our doors. Families who had never thought of having automobiles before World War II found that it was necessary to become mobile. Peddlers ceased to opportune us on our doorsteps and the local groceries closed down. Now even the Sears' catalogue has departed. In a generation or two patterns of New England life that had slowly evolved over the past 300 years were superseded by the shopping center, mall and supermarket. 

Before it is entirely forgotten, it might be good to consider this world we have lost. The Yankee peddler in particular was such a stalwart part of New England life as to almost be symbolic of the region. From the 17th century peddlers set out with their wares along the roads and by-ways of New England and further into the colonies. It was the Yankee peddler who followed the pioneers westward, and brought the requisites for civilized life to the back of beyond. Regionally, the peddler served as a conduit for goods and services (and news) across the dispersed New England farms and villages and also brought products back from the rural areas to the larger towns.

We tend to think of the colonial household as largely self-sufficient. In many ways it was, compared to our need to acquire from elsewhere almost everything we use or consume, but even in the earliest days of the colonies there were many things which had to be bought to make life possible. In the beginning such items as books, pins, buttons, cloth, pewter, ironware, glassware, spices and such commodities came from England aboard vessels which left their consignments at coastal ports such as Boston or Plymouth. From there the goods were dispersed into local shops or sent inland for others to sell. A proportion, however, became the stock of the wandering peddlers who would carry these into the smaller communities and to the outlying farms so that the manufactured necessities and small luxuries of the Old World were made available to all.

By the time of the Revolution many of the items were being made in New England itself, and the region became famous not only for its shrewd salesmen but for the many regional products they made available. Some, such as cotton yard goods, shoes, Connecticut clocks and tinware, were well received throughout the country, especially in the South and West where such small manufacturies did not exist. Others, such as the re-dried tea, adulterated flour, oakleaf cigars and wooden nutmegs, or at least rumors of such dubious things, gave the Yankee peddler a rather scandalous reputation. Certainly the peddler was by necessity a careful trader, and the fame of the Yankee trader was paramount. An old story illustrates the savvy attributed to the wandering peddler:

"I calculate I can't drive a trade with you today," said a yankee pedlar, at the door of a merchant.
"You calculate about right then, for you cannot," was the reply.
"Wal, you needn't get huffy about it—now here's a dozen genuine razor strops, worth all of two dollars and a half—you may have `em for two dollars."
"I tell you I don't want any of your trash; so be off."
"Wal, now, I declare! I bet you five dollars if you make me an offer for them strops, we'll have a trade yet."
"Done!" says the merchant, placing five dollars in the hands of a bystander. The Yankee deposited a like sum—when the merchant offered him a picayune [about 6.25 cents] for the strops.
"They are yourn," said the pedlar, as he quietly pocketed the wager, amid the shouts of a laughing crowd.1

Along with the things for sale or trade the peddler was a source of news and gossip and a link to the outside world for people who seldom strayed outside of their small local sphere.

"A peddler was usually welcome at the home of virtually any settler. In the first place his goods were needed, his news from the city eagerly awaited, and isolated pioneers were always glad to have the company. He did not have the social status of the settled merchant, but he was by no means a tramp or a ne'er-do-well—indeed most peddlers were of a respectable family background, and were peddlers only when young; sooner or later, when they had found a suitable spot, they settled down. Nowadays the word peddler is somewhat derogatory...
But through the greater part of the nineteenth century things were not that way at all. A peddler was invited into a settler's home, seated and given a glass of cider while the housewife called her husband from the fields and the family just to look at a man who had actually been in Marietta or Warren and could tell them all the news and gossip for miles around. Even a few weeks of training the peddler would have learned just how long he could permit this to go on before he opened his pack, or led them out to the wagon and got started on his real business in life"2

There were of course many levels of peddling. At the bottom was the fellow who carried his small stock on his back as he went on foot along his route. As Dolan noted above, this was a popular activity for young men to indulge in before they settled down in life. A fellow could get a basic kit which might consist of one or two tin trunks slung on his back with straps, or some sort of arrangements of baskets, and set off on his adventure on the road.

"The fact of youth is important. The first peddlers had to be reckless, bright young fellows with abundant grit and virility, capable of taking care of themselves. They had to cope with the potentialities and dangers of long and solitary stretches of wilderness between towns—the trackless way, the fearsome beasts and the insolent Indian. To venture a peddling journey from Connecticut to Georgia would excite more comment, fear, and local wonder than a journey to Tibet today. These youths had to supply much of their own food and slept in the open most of the time. Men who could venture this could venture anything."3

The goods carried by foot peddlers were by necessity small and useful, which used to be called "notions": pins, needles, thread,buttons, ribbons, lace, combs, knives, brushes, razors, jew's harps, cheap jewelry, small books and such stuff. These were also the very things that the remote buyer could not get made locally. Other peddlers traveled by pack-horse, cart or wagon (or pung--a wagon on runners--in the winter) which allowed them to carry any number of bulky items from medical nostrums, furniture, brass, iron or tinware, pottery, baskets, brooms, clocks and so forth.

There were a great many other itinerants sharing the roads and lane with the peddlers. At a time where most people stayed put and agriculture was the primary occupation, the only way to reach and supply them was to take to the road. At the top of the social scale, Federal justice was applied on 3 circuits (Eastern, Middle and Southern) after the American Revolution. Itinerant preachers held camp meetings and revivals, while traveling doctors and dentists attended patients along their routes.  Almost any trade or activity had it travelers: limners (portrait or sign painters), lecturers, entertainers of all sorts, shoemakers, chair seaters, tailors, tinsmiths and all.

However, the real scope and profit in peddling dissipated with the arrival of better transport on canals and railways, and the growth in population made it possible to have stores and shops within reach of most customers. A number of fortunes had been made from a beginning in peddling from General (and villain) Benedict Arnold to C. P. Huntington, the railway tycoon who founded the Huntington Library, Frederick T. Stanley of Stanley Tools, George Hartford, who founded the A & P, and Richard W. Sears, of Sears and Roebuck. However, while itinerants and salesmen continue to travel in trade, the old peddlers are more or less extinct.

Some Plymouth Peddlers

Plymouth has also seen its share of peddlers, but few have left any real mark on history.  In the town directory for 1860, for example, Thomas Bartlett of High St., Joseph N. Bates of  Halfway Ponds, and Solomon Faunce, 32 High St. were all listed as peddlers, but there were undoubtedly others who acted on a part-time or  temporary basis.  One Plymouth peddler, a dealer in fish who achieved considerable notoriety, was of course Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Without doubt he would have completely disappeared into history if he had been left alone to ply his piscine trade and hadn't gotten caught up in the anti-radical panic that swept the country after World War I.

The ephemeral character of these itinerants makes living memory the easiest source for examples. When we were young and living up Summer St. in the 1940s and `50s, there were a number of peddlers and itinerants that came around on a regular basis. Some, such as the scissors' grinder with his portable sharpening stone, came from out of town, but others were local. The most interesting was old Mr. Johnson, who lived in the large yellow house on the corner of Summer and Edes Streets. Mr. J. made his way slowly on a rusty old bicycle offering the natural resources of the Plymouth area. He apparently knew the best sources for all sorts of plants and flowers. In the spring we believe he offered mayflowers, but these were soon superseded with fragrant white pond lilies, then various berries and wild fruits in season such as blueberries, dangleberries, beach plums and such, and in the fall he brought bittersweet vines.

Another quite different itinerant was Jerry Henry Frim, the junk dealer. Harry, who collected junk and other materials with a rough old horse and wagon which he kept in the stables on Vacant Lane (which connected Russell St. and Edes St.), was a fearsome old character to the kids who lived in the Summer St. area. He had very heavy features and a surly temper towards those who teased him by calling him "Onions."  This taunt would bring indignant growls and slurred (his teeth were mostly gone) expletives, and frequently a snap of his whip.  People who knew him better, however, said that he was a kindly old fellow (we can attest that, on occasion, he could be quite pleasant even to small boys). Mr. Frim was born in Warsaw, Poland, and came to America in 1895 at the age of 12 with his mother and his brother Maurice, where his father already worked with his uncle Meyer Markus, an established junk dealer. Harry worked for 15 years at the Plymouth Cordage Company, and then at the Plymouth Foundry on Water Street. In 1917, after Mr. Markus became a coal dealer, Harry got a wagon and set up as an independent junk dealer.

Other mobile services included milkmen (both Hood's and Nook Farm), icemen and even a grocer. This was Mr. Capozucca and his cheerful son Dick, who came by in a van full of fruits, vegetables and things. Each year, Tony, the scissors' grinder from Boston, made the rounds with his heavy stand on his back, sharpening knives and scissors for Plymouth housewives. Other peddlers included Mr. Kaplowitz, who brought various "notions" around which people bought we gather as a sort of charity, as he had some sort of speech impediment. There were, earlier, several men who made rounds selling chickens and eggs, such as Henry Quartz from Rocky Nook, or Jack Brenner's uncle Frank who lived on Cherry Court. Then there was Bennie Dretler, who worked out of one of the Sandwich St. houses on the site of Friendly's Restaurant as an itinerant tailor. There were other fish peddlers besides Vanzetti, making their rounds to the sound of their tin trumpets. Tom Brewer called to mind a "Middle Eastern" gentleman who circuited Plymouth selling lace each summer, and another fellow who sold brooms and ladders from a wagon. Various services were provided by Joe Manter (of Manter's Point) who provided firewood in season and did ploughing for people as well. Before the advent of modern septic systems, Plymouth was serviced by the men who rode the "honey wagons" with what is today the unimaginable trade of cleaning out everyone's outhouse pits! There were, obviously, many more now forgotten or at least beyond our knowledge. If anyone can recall other peddlers, they might be so good as to let us know so they can be recorded before the memories of the "men of the road" are lost for good.

The other change noted earlier is the departure of the neighborhood grocery. Before mobility triumphed, there were a number of small stores scattered throughout the town so that each housewife could do her regular shopping afoot (and every child could take inordinate amounts of time deciding on the suitable way to spend a few pennies on candy). These stores seemed to change hands and move about with some regularity, appearing here and then there as economics and ambition dictated. On Summer St., we chiefly remember Eddie Clough Jr.'s Market at number 84 (on the west corner of Summer and Willard Place, which had been Atwood's Grocery in the 1880s). His father, Edward Clough sr., had a grocery at 87 Summer as early as 1893, which moved across the street in 1918. Curiously, there was a Richard Clough living on Summer St. (then called High St.) as early as 1638. There was a Rogan's Grocery at number 85 (or 87), and Rogan's Dry Goods  on the corner of High and Summer Sts. in 1920 (and briefly afterward in the 1950s). Further down Summer St. was Taub's Grocery on the north side of the street at number 27, and of course the several markets on Market St, such as the South Centre Market and People's Market. The other notable market for a child was Saracca's at 36 Sandwich St., which had a marvelous selection of candy and comics.

Rutland Herald, Nov. 16, 1843 (quoted in Dorson Jonathan Draws the Longbow, p. 80)
Dolan, J.R. The Yankee Peddlers of Early America. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1964. p. 67.

Wright, Richardson. Hawkers & Walkers in Early America. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippencott, 1927. p. 21.