A peddler, in British English pedlar, also known as a canvasser, chapman, cheapjack, hawker, higler, huckster, monger, or solicitor, is a traveling vendor of goods. In England, the term was mostly used for travellers hawking goods in the countryside to small towns and villages; they might also be called tinkers or gypsies. In London more specific terms were used, such as costermonger.
Peddlers have a long and colourful history. From antiquity, peddlers filled the gaps in the formal market economy by providing consumers with the convenience of door-to-door service. They operated alongside town markets and fairs where they often purchased surplus stocks which were subsequently resold to consumers. Peddlers were able to distribute goods to the more geographically isolated communities such as those who lived in mountainous regions of Europe. They also called on consumers, who for whatever reason, found it difficult to attend town markets. Thus, peddlers played an important role in linking these consumers and regions to wider trade routes. Some peddlers worked as agents or travelling salesmen for larger manufacturers, thus were the precursor to the modern travelling salesman.
Images of peddlers feature in literature and art from as early as the 12th-century. Such images were very popular with the genre and Orientalist painters and photographers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some imagery depicts peddlers in a perjorative manner, while others portray idealised, Romantic visions of peddlers at work.
The origin of the word, known in English since 1225, is uncertain, but is possibly an Anglicised version of the French pied, Latin pes, pedis "foot", referring to a petty trader travelling on foot.
A peddler, under English law, is defined as: "any hawker, pedlar, petty chapman, tinker, caster of metals, mender of chairs, or other person who, without any horse or other beast bearing or drawing burden, travels and trades on foot and goes from town to town or to other men's houses, carrying to sell or exposing for sale any goods, wares, or merchandise immediately to be delivered, or selling or offering for sale his skill in handicraft." The main distinction between peddlers and other types of street vendor is that peddlers travel as they trade, rather than travel to a fixed place of trade. Peddlers travel around and approach potential customers directly whereas street traders set up a pitch or a stall and wait for customers to approach them. When not actually engaged in selling, peddlers are required to keep moving. Although peddlers may stop to make a sale, they are precluded from setting up a pitch or remaining in the same place for lengthy periods. Although peddlers normally travel by foot, there is no reason why they cannot use some means of assistance, such as a cart or a trolley, to assist in the transportation of goods.
Peddlers have been known since antiquity and possibly earlier. They were known by a variety of names throughout the ages, including Arabber, hawker, costermonger (English), chapman (medieval English), huckster, itinerant vendor or street vendor. According to marketing historian, Eric Shaw, the peddler is "perhaps the only substantiated type of retail marketing practice that evolved from Neolithic times to the present." The political philosopher, John Stuart Mill wrote that "even before the resources of society permitted the establishment of shops, the supply of [consumer] wants fell universally into the hands of itinerant dealers, the pedlars who might appear once a month, being preferred to the fair, which only returned once a year."
Typically, peddlers operated door-to-door, plied the streets or stationed themselves at the fringes of formal trade venues such as open air markets or fairs. In the Greco-Roman world, open-air markets served urban customers, while peddlers filled in the gaps in distribution by selling to rural or geographically distant customers.
In the Bible the term 'peddler' was used to describe those who spread the word of God for profit. The book of Corinthians has the following phrase, "For we are not as so many, peddling the word of God." (Corinthians 2:17). The Greek term translated "peddling" referred to small-scale merchant who profited from acting as a middleman between others. The Apocrypha has the following, "A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong ; and an huckster shall not be freed from sin" (Ecclesiasticus 26:29).
In some economies the work of itinerant selling was left to nomadic minorities, such as gypsies, travellers, or Yeniche who offered a varied assortment of goods and services, both evergreens and (notoriously suspicious) novelties. In 19th century USA, peddling was often the occupation of immigrant communities including Italians, Greeks and Jews. The more colourful peddlers were those that doubled as performers, healers, or fortune-tellers.
Historically, peddlers used a variety of different transport modes: they travelled by foot, carrying their wares; by means of a person or animal-drawn cart or wagon or used improvised carrying devices. Abram Goodman, who took to peddling in the US in the 1840s, reports that he travelled by foot, used a sleigh when roads were snowbound and also travelled, with his pack, by boat when traversing longer distances.
As market towns flourished in medieval Europe, peddlers found a role operating on the fringes of the formal economy. They called directly on homes, delivering produce to the door thereby saving customers time travelling to markets or fairs. However, customers paid a higher price for this convenience. Some peddlers operated out of inns or taverns, where they often acted as an agent rather than a reseller. Peddlers played an important role providing services to geographically isolated districts, such as in the mountainous regions of Europe, thereby linking these districts with wider trading routes.
A 16th-century commentator wrote of the:
By the 18th-century, some peddlers worked for industrial producers, where they acted as a type of travelling sales representative. In England, these peddlers were known as "Manchester men." Employed by a factory or entrepreneur, they sold goods from shop to shop rather than door to door and were thus operating as a type of wholesaler or distribution intermediary. They were the precursors to the modern sales representative.
In the United States, there was an upsurge in the number of peddlers in the late 18th century and this may have peaked decades just before the American Civil War. However, their numbers began to decline by the 19th-century. Advances in industrial mass production and freight transportation as a result of the war laid the groundwork for the beginnings of modern retail and distribution networks, which gradually eroded much of the need for travelling salesmen. The rise of popular mail order catalogues (e.g. Montgomery Ward began in 1872) offered another way for people in rural or other remote areas to obtain items not readily available in local stores or markets. A relatively short-lived upsurge in the number of peddlers was witnessed in the period following the second World War, when the wartime manufacturing boom came to an abrupt end, and returning soldiers finding themselves unable to secure suitable work, turned to peddling which generally offered a decent income.
In the United States, the travelling salesman became a stock character in countless jokes. Such jokes are typically bawdy, and usually feature small town rubes, farmers and other country folk, and frequently another stock character, the farmer's daughter.
Throughout much of Europe, suspicions of dishonest or petty criminal activity was long associated with peddlers and travellers. Regulations to discourage small-scale retailing by hawkers and peddlers, promulgated by English authorities in the 15th and 16th centuries and reinforced by the Church, did much to encourage stereotypical and negative attitudes towards peddlers. From the 16th century, peddlers were often associated with pejorative perceptions, many of which persisted until well into the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the modern economy a new breed of peddler, generally encouraged to dress respectably to inspire confidence with the general public, has been sent into the field as an aggressive form of direct marketing by companies pushing their specific products, sometimes to help launch novelties, sometimes on a permanent basis. In a few cases this has even been used as the core of a business.
Very few peddlers left written records. Many were illiterate and diaries are rare. Most peddlers handled cash transactions leaving behind few or no accounting records such as receipts, invoices or day- books. However, a very small number of peddlers kept diaries and these can be used to provide an insight into the daily life of a peddler. Ephraim Lisitzky (1885-1962), an immigrant from Russia, arrived in the US in 1900 and took up peddling for a brief period following his arrival. His autobiography, published in 1959 under the title, In the Grip of the Cross-Currents, describes his various encounters with householders and the difficulties he experienced making a sale as door after door was slammed in his face.
After arriving in America in 1842, Abram Vossen Goodman also maintained a diary of his experiences and that diary has been published by the American Jewish Archives. Extracts from the diary detail his experiences and thoughts about the life of a peddler. When, Goodman's initial attempts to find employment as a clerk were unsuccessful, on September 29, he wrote, "I had to do as all the others; with a bundle on my back I had to go out into the country, peddling various articles." (p. 95) In the first few weeks, he found the lifestyle onerous, uncertain and solitary.
Today, peddlers continue to travel by foot, but also use bicycle, hand-held carts, horse-drawn carts or drays and motorized vehicles such as motor-bikes as transport modes. To carry their wares, peddlers use purpose-built back-packs, barrows, hand-carts or improvised carrying baskets. Rickshaw peddlers are a relatively common sight across Asia.
Vegetable peddler, Japan, 19th-century
Cycle-mounted Breton onion salesmen are a familiar sight across southern England and Wales
Fruit peddler and barrow, Sydney, circa 1885
A door-to-door peddler in Holland, 1905
David and Harry Silverman in their fruit peddling cart, Saint Paul, Minnesota, c. 1920
Mandalay rickshaw peddler
Street vendor in Maracaibo with improvised carry container
Banana vendor, Uganda
Food peddlers are the mainstay of the floating markets in Thailand
Ice cream seller in Paris, France 2010
A number of countries have enacted laws to protect the rights of peddlers, and also to protect the public from the sale of inferior goods. In many states of the USA, peddlers are required to apply for a license. India has special laws enacted, by the efforts of planners which give mongers higher rights as compared to other businessmen. For example, mongers have a right of way over motorized vehicles.
In Britain, peddling is still governed by the Pedlars Act 1871, which provides for a "pedlar's certificate". Application is usually made to the police. In the late 20th century, the use of such certificates became rare as other civic legislation including the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 and the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1982 for England & Wales introduced a street trader's licence. As of 2008 the pedlar's certificates remain legal and in use, although several local councils have sought to eradicate peddlers by way of local bylaws or enforcement mechanisms such as making them apply for a street trader's licence.
Literal compounds formed from these synonyms are:
Metaphoric compounds, since the 16th century mostly pejorative, formed from these synonyms are:
Names, most archaic, of product- or industry-specific types of peddlers include:
Names, some pejorative, of other sub- or supertypes or close relatives of peddlers include:
Individual peddlers (of myth and history)
Although there are basic similarities between the activities in the Old World and the New World there are also significant differences. In Britain the word was more specific to an individual selling small items of household goods from door to door. It was not usually applied to Gypsies.
Peddlers have been the subject of numerous paintings, sketches and watercolours in both Western art and in the Orient, where they depict familiar scenes of every day life. Some of the earliest paintings of peddlers were made in China. The 12th century Chinese artist, Su Hanchen made several paintings of peddlers as did one of his contemporaries, Li Song, both of whom painted The Knick knack Peddler.
The Peddlar by Hieronymous Bosch is perhaps the most icononic image of a peddler. Painted in about 1500, the peddler in this painting wears a costume almost identical to thieves in other Bosch paintings. From the 18th-century, engravings featuring peddlers and street vendors featured in numerous volumes dedicated to representations of street life. One of the first of such publications was a French publication, Etudes Prises Dans let Bas Peuple, Ou Les Cris de Paris (1737) (roughly translated as Studies Taken of the Lower People, Or The Cries of Paris). In 1757, the first English publication in this genre was The Cries of London Calculated to Entertain the Minds of Old and Young; illustrated in variety of copper plates neatly engrav'd with an emblematical description of each subject, was published. and followed by Cries of London (1775) These were followed by numerous illustrated works which continued into the twentieth century.
Bonnie Young has pointed out that the theme of the monkey and the peddler was relatively common in Medieval art across Europe. These scenes, which appear in books and on silverware, often depict bands of monkeys robbing the peddler while he sleeps. Such images may have been popular in medieval society, because the peddler shared many of the same vices as a monkey; he was seen as a "a showman, a bit of a trickster and not always acquiring his wares by honest means and plying them without too much regard for the quality of the merchandise."
The Cheap Jack stereotype appears often in 19th century literature. The most famous example is probably Charles Dickens' "Doctor Marigold". A short story it was originally written for one of his Christmas editions of All the Year Round. In collected editions of Dickens' works, it appears in the volume Christmas Stories.
Russian lubok prints (popular prints) also feature peddlers along with other popular stereotypes. Some scholars suggest that the origin of the term, lubok, may have come from the word lubki - a type of basket typically carried by peddlers as they carried a myriad of different wares into villages in old Russia. Korobeiniki is a Russian folk song that describes a meeting between a peddler and a girl. Their haggling is a metaphor for their courtship.
The Lady and the Peddler, (1947) is an American play by Yosefa Even Shoshan and adapted from a story by S.Y. Agnon. The plot concerns a Jewish peddler who takes up residence with a mysterious gentile woman. Residing in a forest setting, the situation is idyllic for the travelling salesman, as the woman provides for all his needs and never asks for anything in return. Soon, however, he comes to realise that the woman is an evil spirit in disguise. The story is thought to be a metaphor for the dislocation and destruction of European Jews. St Patrick and the Peddler by Margaret Hodges is a novel about a peddler who is visited by St Patrick in his dreams and through a circuitous route uncovers great riches.
The Tin Men (1987), a feature film directed by Barry Levinson and starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny De Vito, is a comedy set in 1963, concerning two aluminium salesmen and the dirty tricks they use to make a sale as they try to out-compete each other.
The Pedlar by Hans Holbein 1538 Pedlar
The spectacle-pedlar, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1624-1625
Broom Peddler, by François Joullain, Etching, 1737
Cherry peddler in Bucharest, painting by Amadeo Preziosi, c. 1869
The Shrimp Girl by William Hogarth, 1740
Pedlar by Carl Spitzweg, 1875
London Pedlar by Gustave Doré, late 19th century
Venetian fish seller by Giuseppe Barison, 1906
Brown, D., The Autobiography of a Pedlar: John Lomas of Hollinsclough, Staffordshire (1747-1823), Midland History, 1996
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