Street cries of the world

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month from 2018 onwards I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.


This article by E. C. Vansittart appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine of January 1904.


SCRIVETE i vostri costumi, se volete la vostra storia” (“Write down your customs, if you want your history”), said Machiavelli, the great historian; and indeed nothing so makes us know a people as to study their special habits and customs.

The street cries of itinerant vendors are more or less common to every country, though peculiar to each, and perhaps none are so characteristic as those of southern Italy, and this for various reasons. In a warm climate a larger portion of daily life is lived out of doors, and many more avocations are carried on in the streets than would be possible in the north; this in large towns like Rome and Naples, especially in the more crowded parts frequented by the lower and middle class families where no servant is kept, the housewife does her daily domestic shopping from her doorstep or window, buying all she requires in the way of fruit, vegetables, fish, eggs, poultry, and cheese from itinerant vendors, whose prices too are always lower than those of the shops, owing to the fact that they have no rent to pay, and act as distributors of inferior or stale commodities. And not only can she supply the needs of the commissariat department, but she can have her knives or scissors ground, crockery, umbrellas, boots and shoes mended; can buy brooms, coarse kitchen and household earthernware, and stuffs for clothing; can sell empty bottles or old rags – in a word, carry on the ordinary business of life without leaving her own door. In the slums this marketing is further simplified, for the purchaser who lives on the fifth or sixth floor of a crowded tenement merely lowers a basket at the end of a cord, screams out her needs, which are placed in the basket, inspected when drawn up and, if approved of, down come the coppers, all swiftly and deftly accomplished, though accompanied by much shouting and gesticulation.

In southern climates vegetables and fruit are much more abundant, and Italians of the lower classes rarely eat meat more than once or twice a week. On the other hand, vegetables, fruit, eggs, and farinaceous dishes are consumed in great quantities. This is partly the result of the climate, which would not permit of the consumption of animal food to the extent indulged in by the British artisan or workman, partly owing to the simpler tastes and more frugal habits of the people themselves. That they are gainers by their moderation there is no doubt, as has been proved by the endurance of Italian navvies, who are able to hold out for hours in the confined atmosphere which is unavoidable when boring for railway tunnels, where their British or German companions quickly collapse. And what applies to food applies also to drink: the itinerant water vendor in Spain and Italy drives a thriving trade, for where the northern workman will go in for his glass of beer or spirits, the southerner will take his lemonade, iced water, or sweetened bibita (fruit syrup) in preference even to the light wine of the country; and to the honour of the race it must be conceded that intemperance is not a common vice in Italy, but an accident, unfrequent among men, almost unheard of among women.

Especially during the spring and summer months, throughout the length and breadth of the land, the city air resounds with the cries of itinerant vendors, many of them traditional, and handed down through generations. Pitré, the great Sicilian student of folklore, asserts that those in vogue at Palermo at the present day are unaltered from what they were a hundred years ago, though, with the vivid imagination and quickness of repartee peculiar to the nation, poetical and apt additions are constantly made on the spur of the moment, no people knowing better than the Italians how to offer their wares in the most attractive form. Each set of words is sung or chanted to a special cantilena (melody). Some of these are very musical; most of them resemble a lament, with long-drawn-out notes, the words being contracted, broken up, and so indefinitely prolonged as to lose themselves in a kind of wail. Others are very short, ringing out cheerily through crowded mart and lane. Soon after dawn, the first will fall on your ear, to be rapidly succeeded by others, and so varied that after a while one drowns another, till habit hardens one to the babel of sound. It is trying both to nerves and patience.

During the hot hours of the day they cease entirely, and in the afternoon and evening another set take up the chant – the limonaro, the water-seller, and vendors of melons, strawberries, and such-like trifles pleasantly suggestive of seeming coolness in the hot, burning atmosphere of a southern summer; though even in the depth of winter there is no lack of cries, but of a different kind. Then it is hot roast chestnuts, baked apples, hot rolls, and chestnut pudding that hawkers dispense.

Some of these itinerant merchants have a donkey-cart, but generally the goods are displayed on a hand-cart or barrow, on a tray or in baskets, and some, such as the sellers of onions, hang the strings over their arms and shoulders. A certain amount of time is always lost in bargaining and chaffering, but the same would take place in a shop, for in Italy no one ever expects either to get or pay the price asked, the Eastern custom of long preamble and beating down prevailing in full force, and rendered the more puzzling to the new-comer by the universal tendency of such low-class vendors to employ the money values of the past in preference to those of the present – baiocco, paolo, grano, &c., instead of soldo or lira.

In Sicily, street cries go by the name of abbanniati, and Pitré gives the following as peculiar to that island, among those which are traditional, and have gone on unaltered for over a hundred years: garlic and onions are sold in tresses to the cry of “A tri suordi ’a trizza agghi! Ora visiti, ca cci vuonnu l’ agghi? ” (“Three soldi the tress of garlic! Now see, who wants garlic?”)

Bay twigs appear early in winter to the accompaniment of “Chi l’ haju pampinuta ’addávuru! ” (“How leafy is the bay I have!”) “Haju chiddi duci vrùocculi! Chi beddi pieri ri vrùocculi! Com’ i puma l’ haju’sti vrùocculi! Vrùocculi mammi, mammi! ” (“I have such sweet broccoli! What fine broccoli! I have them as sweet as apples! Broccoli! basketsful, basketsful!”) announce the autumn and winter carts piled with broccoli.

The rosy-fleshed water-melon, with its ebony seeds and brilliant green rind, is offered as “Io l’ haju russi e duci! Vampi di fuocu mi jeccannu talè! Va tagghia ch’ è russu! Io v’ ri vinnu a prova! Russu comu lu fuocu l’ haju! ” (“I have them red and sweet! Flames of fire they cast at me! Watch as I cut this red one! I will sell them to you on trial! I have them red as fire!”)

The same cut in slices and sold in retail: “Ma veru russu é! un granu ’a fedda va’. Un suli affaccia, l’ ’n aùtru ’nni cudda! C’ un guranu manci, vivi, e ti lavi ’a facci!” (“But this one is truly red! it costs a grano [farthing] a slice! One sun rises and another sets! For the sum of one grano you can eat, drink, and wash your face!”)

Earthenware pots full of boiled beans are hawked in lanes and alleys by women who sell them by numbers: “Moddi, muoddi p’ i vicchiarieddi! Moddi, muoddi! sfatta l’ haju p’ ’a vecchia! Un granu tri vintini gnuòcculi! Cu lu latti e la simulidda vi li scinnivi li gnuòcculi! Belli sfattuliddi e sciaguatieddi! ” (“Soft, soft for old women! I have them cooked for old women! A grano for three twenties! I have boiled them for you in milk and semolina! Fine, soft, cooked beans!”)

Tomatoes, known as pomi d’ ori, or golden apples, are vaunted thus: “Cu s’ ha fari’a strattu? Chi matinati di fari sdusa! Puma d’ auri! chi l’ haju russi! Su sintile la ciaru? Su’ issi! su’ iddi! Finu a lu piricuddu, su’ russi! ” (“Who has to make conserve? What a morning to make sauce! Here they are! here they are! Do you smell them? Down to the smallest they are red”).[1]

Comu russa r’ ova viennu! Comu fussiru ’nfurnati viennu, uovi vi li scinnivi li caùri. Castagni caùdi tirìti, tirìti! Ch’ è bella quann’ è caùra! chi ciùra chi fa! ” (“They are like yolks of eggs! They become like baked ones! In this moment I have taken them off the fire, these hot chestnuts! How good they are when they are hot! what a scent they have!”) does not at the first moment lead one to expect the familiar roast chestnut, while “I have those of the priest!” (”Haju chiddi d’ ’u prievitu! ”) would lead one to expect stolen goods instead of simply meaning chestnuts which have first been boiled and then put into the oven. The following is given as the origin of this curious appellation:

A Neapolitan priest, who had a great weakness for roast chestnuts, used every day, on going out, to charge his servant not to forget to have them read roasted for his dinner. One day, in a fit of absence of mind, she put the chestnuts into water and began to boil them instead of baking them in the oven. When they were half-cooked, however, she suddenly remembered her orders, and, not knowing how to repair the blunder, she transferred them to the oven, half-boiled as they were. When the master tasted them, finding them better than usual, he inquired the reason, and gave orders that henceforth his chestnuts should be boiled before being baked, so chestnuts of his kind go by the name of “the priest’s chestnuts.”

Chi bedda ’ràttula! Rattula ’i rialu! ” (“What beautiful dates! Dates to make a present of!”)

Cu’ sala, oliva nuova cu’ sala? L’ erba d’ ’u pitittu è! Lu gran spaventu d’ oliva! ” (“Who wants to salt fresh olives? who wants to salt? It is the herb of appetite! What a terror of olives!”)

Pira butiri! si mancia e si vivi! Pira butiri! ca vi squàgghianu ’nt ’a vuccuzza vieru! ” (“Pears like butter – one eats and drinks them! Truly they melt in your mouth!”) serve to attract attention to the various goods the criers have to offer.

Though each object has its own peculiar formula, yet some which are common to all Italy vary in form in the different districts. Thus yellow boiled beans or dried melon seeds are in Sicily cried as “Sbia-òziu” (“drivers-away of ennui”); in Naples they are “U spassatiempo” (“time-killers”); in Florence “Consolatori dei tribolati, o i semi! ” (“Consolers of the sorrowful, oh! the seeds!”) – all of which mean the same thing, with a difference!

In Sicily, at the festival of All Souls, which is to Sicilian children what Christmas is to their English or German companions, the itinerant vendor of toys sings: “’A tuvuliddu l’ haju! ’a tulittedda l’ haju! ’u scrusci scrusci l’ haju! ’u panarrieddu l’ haju! ’a paridduzza l’ haju! e tutti cosi l’ haju! Chiànciti, picciriddi, ca la mamma vi l’ accatta! Mi chiàncinu, comu mi chiàncinu! ” (“The doll’s table I have! the washing-stand I have! the drum I have! the little basket I have! the little casserole I have! and all things have I! Cry, children, cry, then your mother may buy them for you. How the children cry! how they cry!”), while at the Epiphany, which replaces this festival for the Florentine child, the formula runs: “Piangete, bambini, che la mamma la ve li compra.” (“Cry, children, so your mother will buy them for you!”)

This is a most characteristic cry, demonstrating, as perhaps nothing else could, the utter lack of discipline in the upbringing of Italian children; for, with few exceptions, obedience is rarely enforced, indulgence is the rule, and every whim yielded to – a system fatal in its results on the character, and which perhaps accounts in a great measure for the want of self-control displayed in later life, owing to which, when a difference of opinion arises or a contradiction is given, a knife is instantly drawn, a thrust given, and the result may be murder; or if fate seems perverse, the victim, instead of patiently bearing the trial, seeks relief in poison, and all is over.

In Rome the following are amongst the most familiar street cries: “Ranocchie vive! Ranocchi! ” (“Frogs, live frogs, oh!”) announces little bundles of blanched frogs tied together by the hind leg, lying on a wooden tray. One wonders how they can afford a mouthful, so tiny do they seem. “Lumache, lumache, o che lumache! ” is another cry, common to spring, and draws attention to a basket over whose sides live snails are crawling, and are periodically swept back into the depths. It is reported that the soup made from them is not only tasty, but highly nutritious. Fish of every kind is cried out always as being alive.

Portogalli, vero Palermo! o che portogalli! tre per due soldi. Sono regalati questi portogalli! Aranci, cedri, limoni! quanto sono belli!! (“Oranges from Palermo! oh! what oranges! three for two soldi. They are given away, these oranges! Oranges, citrons, lemonms! how fine they are!”) with its thousand variations, is one of the most frequent cries, as the vendor pushes a hand-cart heaped up with the golden fruit. A few days ago I heard a quaint addition made on the spur of the moment. Near the railway station a remarkably handsome young contadino had stationed himself with a basket of oranges which he advertised as follows: “O che portogalli! quanto sono bei questi portogalli! bei come me! ” (“See what oranges! what beautiful oranges! as beautiful as myself!”), while, on the other hand, a note of irony was struck by a wrinkled, toothless, old hag whom I once heard using the same words: “O che portogalli! vedete quanto sono belli! belli come me! ” – only really beautiful oranges contrasted strangely with her ugliness!

Fragole, fragole di giardino, o che miracolo di fragole! ” (“Strawberries, garden strawberries, miracles of strawberries!”)

Carciofoli, carciofoli! chi li vuole i carciofoli? senza barba sono! Che carciofoli, cimaroli! ” (“Artichokes, artichokes! who wants artichokes? Without choke they are. What top shoot artichokes!”)

Fri–es–ca, Acqua ’cetoas! ” This is a most musical cry, generally ringing out, in a boy’s high clear voice, from a cart drawn by a donkey, laden with crates full of rush-covered flasks filled with water from a mineral spring three miles out of Rome. It is slightly sparkling, and considered so valuable for its medicinal properties that there is scarcely a Roman household in which it is not drunk all through the spring and summer. Each morning the empty flasks, costing one soldo, are exchanged for full ones. The itinerant water-seller, a pleasant sight on a sultry summer’s day, is generally attired in a spotless linen suit, with a large straw hat. In one hand he carries his supply of water in a picturesque copper brocca, which has been polished till it shines like burnished gold; in the other, a round tray, with sides and handle, divided into compartments each holding a tumbler, and, hitched on one side, a tray with lemons and sugar. His cry falls on the hot air with a cooling sound: “Acqua, acqua fresca. O che geló, o che geló! Acqua fresca come la neve! O chi beve fredda, o chi beve? Chi vuol beve? Fredda, fredda! ” (“Water, fresh water! Cool, how cool it is! Water as cold as snow! Oh! who will drink it cold? who will drink? Cold! cold!”)

Then there is the arrotino (knife-grinder), who simply dwells on his own name in a plaintive, long-drawn cry as he passes along, pushing his wheel before him: “Arrotino, ar-ro-tinoo, ar-ro-ti–no! ”

The umbrella merchant, ombrellaoi, who also mends plates and dishes: “Ombrellaio! O chi ha concoli e cocole d’ accomodare? ” (“The umbrella mender! Oh! who has plates and dishes to mend?”)

The buyer of old clothes, with a sack flung over his back, who sings out: “Reba vecchia! ” (“Old clothes!”); the scoparo, who sells brooms of every description; the man with caciottini (cream cheeses), each sold in a tiny rush basket, or of ricotta (curd made of sheeps’ milk), which is brought in straight from the Campagna on a bed of green arum leaves.

Avanti, mamme, calze e clazetine, dicci soldi al paio! ” (“Come, mother, stockings and socks, ten soldi the pair!”)

Cerase, che belle cerase! senza ù compariello! ” (“Cherries, fine cherries! without the gossip!”) (i.e. the not uncommon wormy inhabitant of this fruit) give a good idea of what quaintness and variety lie ready to interest the willing student of the life of the southern populace, and, in the end, announce the seasons merely by the advent of some special call. The “Acqua Acetosa” is the signal of spring being at the door, water-melons announce summer, “Ulive” (olives) autumn, and “Ricotta” or “Calde, calde” (roast chestnuts) tell of winter, each following the other in due course, till we circle round the year, and suddenly awake to find that twelve moons have passed since last we heard that cry.


1. Referring to the habit of making a sun-dried paste of sauce of this fruit for winter use.