Peddlers of Progress

Jaffee, D. (1991). "Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760-1860." The Journal of American History 78(2): 511-535.

Jaffee 1991: Draws heavily on Kulikoff, and talks a little too much about the bourgeoise cultural transformation, the “self-fashioning of new identities,” and the “democratization of gentility.” (513) After the Civil War, he says, the “grass-roots character of rural marketing disappeared as the flow and agents of cultural change in the countryside reversed direction, rural agents becoming urban.” (534) He spends a lot of time on Massachusetts’ Hawkers and Peddlers Act of 1846, “which established a graded level of licenses based on ‘morals and citizenship.’” (533) This was an attempt, he says, by local people to “reduce the number of itinerants in the interior settlements and maintain the dominant role of the storekeeper as mediator between producer and consumer.” (532) Not suprisingly, I’m again dissatisfied with this either-or approach to the issue. Rural is good, urban bad? But by 1846, Massachusetts peddlers (many of them based in rural towns like Ashfield) were covering not only the northeast, but the west and south on behalf of urban and rural manufacturers. So whose interests were being served by the 1846 bill? Who was behind it? Who voted against it?

Maybe I’m particularly hard on these types of accounts, because they come so frustratingly close, and then miss the mark. “The creation of the Yankee peddler in antebellum popular literature served as a rich vehicle to convey the meaning of the charged encounter...[and as] symbolic representations to rural people of changing economic transactions between individuals,” Jaffee says. (527) But then he doesn’t take it anywhere. He lets it stand as just another example of what he seems to imagine is a straightforward, black vs. white conflict in the transition to capitalism: “the market became dislodged from an actual sense of place and became an amorphoous entity, a free-floating concept” (quoting Agnew, 527). If anything, the presence of peddlers in the economic lives of rural people (both as suppliers of stuff, and as brothers, sons, and neighbors engaged in the business) argues that rural people had a more complex, layered engagement with commerce than these accounts from the Kulikoff school would suggest. Their responses to “itinerants” are as ambivalent as their responses to “capitalism,” because in both cases, they’re not engaging with those categories, but with the particulars of the situations they find themselves in.

Along the way, some interesting facts: “in the 1850s the ‘full-line, full-service wholesaler begain to market most standardized consumer goods’” (quoting Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., 534). The change from merchants maintaining a variety of supply relationships, to the one-stop wholesale shop seems to imply a radical change in power and agency. And: “By 1860...In Massachusetts as a whole, there were 1,648 peddlers, 5 percent of the total commercial population of 35,937.” (522) That’s a low percentage, but I wonder what counts as commercial population. And “Rufus Porter [founder of Scientific American]...would stroll into villages with his brightly decorated camera box, a camera obscura...Porter advertised his profiles (silhouettes) at twenty cents apiece and could produce perhaps twenty in an evening.” (521) Another guy who needs to make a cameo appearance in a story!

Yankee Peddlers

Richardson Wright, Hawkers & Walkers in Early America, 1927

Although old, this book is still considered the master text on peddlers and itinerants in early America. Wright devotes about half his time to Yankee Peddlers, and the rest to preachers, cobblers, tramps, itinerant craftsmen, and entertainers. There are some interesting observations about the rise of automobile and bus transportation -- Wright expects technology will begin “freeing” people from urban life just as it once “confined” them.

“The dealer in small wares, essences and such, was called a ‘trunk-peddler,’ because he carried his goods in one or two small, oblong, tin trunks slung on his back by a webbing harness or a leather strap.” (19) I’d like to see one of these set-ups. Even more, I’d like to put it on and carry a loaded rig for a couple of miles, to see what it felt like. Wright mentions Timothy Dwight’s disdain for peddlers, adding “whatever exuberant youth does, the clergy consider wrong. And these peddlers were young men.” (21)

The young peddler’s travels, Wright says, “afforded him a fairly complete survey of the rural markets; he could judge the best neighborhoods in which to open a store.” (22) They covered the entire settled area of the country; “Even Horn’s
Overland Guide to California--the Baedecker of the forty-niners--contains the advertisement of a Mr. Sypher in Fort Des Moines, who is willing to supply the lowest possible rates.” (26)

“The essence peddler,” says Wright, “was quite a different sort. Usually a free-lance, he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars [and] fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters. In the backwoods these bitters were in great demand. They were mixed with the local brand of homemade liquor...Other extracts were used as remedies and antidotes.” (56-7) Wright quotes Hawthorne’s 1838 passage from the
American Note-books describing his conversation with an essence peddler on the way home to Ashfield, to renew his supply.

Wright thinks “We can trace the dislike of the town for the country through practically all phases of itinerant life.” Despite the fact that “had there been no peddlers there would have been no countryside distribution, and...manufacturing, even of the humblest household sort, could never have survived,” Wright says “the peddler’s foe was the established, settled, town merchant.” (89) It’s hard to judge this argument, because Wright simply asserts it. He does not cite any examples (and although he includes a large bibliography, he includes no notes), but his general attitude is betrayed a few pages later when he comments “a vast amount of sentiment has been wasted over this Homespun Era.” (93)

In an interesting aside, Wright dates the entry of Jewish peddlers into the picture to about 1836, “following the oppressive marriage laws promulgated in Bavaria” in 1835. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, and it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my story, but it’s interesting that there’s a whole other view of peddling and the rise of Jewish families in America, that originates here. See, for example, the
American Jewish Historical Society website.

I raced through the sections on preachers and entertainers, but noticed a couple of interesting people and facts along the way: Jonathan Chapman and William Augustus Bowles are both probably worth a closer look at some point. And “the yeast man who kept his precious fluid--barm, it was called locally--in a jar in front of him in his cart,” is probably a character who should make a cameo appearance in a story, someday. (229) New York street sellers are interesting, but seem a lot tamer than London costermongers.

“Out of Boston, in 1832...ran no fewer than 106 coach lines to all parts of the State and contiguous States.” (265) Important for me to keep in mind that Ashfield was a rest-stop on the Boston to Albany mail run. There’s got to be some material on this, either in Ashfield or at the PVMA. William F. Harnden, who started the “Express Package Carrier” company between Boston and New York in 1839 is also probably worth looking into. (268)