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.


Originally published in The Cosmopolitan Magazine, Volume XXXVIII, No. 3, January 1905, New York.

Title illustration


With illustrations by Vaughan Trowbridge

IT was the musical element of the pedlars’ cries in Paris which first drew my attention. Elsewhere, in Holland and Belgium, in Germany, in England and in America, these pedlars exhibit costumes as musically rendered as in Paris. It may be the expression the Gallic temperament, the desire for dramatic – or at least theatrical – expression, but, whatever the cause, the pedlars of the boulevards stand first as regards the musical character of their cries.

It has been, with me, a subject of some speculation why these cries should be so elaborate. Why do these hucksters, instead of using one general pitch of voice, fall into such remarkably complex musical phrases and cadences? There certainly would be an advantage to each pedlar in having his own individual cry, which would soon become familiar to his customers; but I can hardly believe that the cries, as they now exist in the streets, were selected or deliberately invented by their possessors. It is more probably that they were of gradual and unconscious growth.

The street-cries that will be considered in this article, while they are by no means all that can be heard in the streets of Paris, are yet the most striking.

One of the commonest cries is that which announces the approach of a “barrel-dealer”; he is a man who buys empty wine-barrels. Of his class there is, of course, an immense number in a city where even the poorest people drink wine as if it were water. As the greater part of the vin ordinaire is bought in the quantity, by the cask or barrel, employment is thereby given to an immense number of barrel-dealers; and the cry of these men, “Marchand d’ tonneau, tonneau!” is heard in all parts of the city.

Some of the pedlars that one sees in Paris are hardly better than vagrants, but these barrel-dealers are thrifty people, possessed of at least moderate capital. They go through the streets in pairs, with one vehicle for the two. This vehicle, called a “haquet,” is like a very large slide, or a ladder with only two or three rounds, fastened upon a pair of wheels. Two large joists, twenty feet long, fastened by iron bars and clamps at a distance from each other of about three feet, run over the axle tree of a pair of wheels, and, being continued forward, are jointed vertically with the shafts. Up this slide the barrels are rolled by two ropes, fastened, at the front of the wagon, to a wheel and axle.

In the nature of his cry the marchand d’ tonneau has an advantage over many of his fellow tradesmen, for the two words have good open sounds, and the voice when uttering the last syllable of “tonneau” – pronounced like oa in boat – can be heard a long distance.

Chimney sweep and others

Each of the cries of these street-merchants, the more complex as well as the simple, seems fixed unchangeably; and in listening to the same cries hundreds of times, I never heard the least variation; exactly the same musical intervals were used, and nearly always the same absolute pitch. I recollect once hearing a hand-organ playing tunes in a key only half a tone below the pitch of a huckster who was calling his wares in the same street, but the voice kept its pitch perfectly, despite the instrument, starting the cry each time, after a brief pause, with a precision that astonished me.

One of the quaintest and most interesting sounds heard from the pedlars is that made by the vender of spigots, or faucets, called, in French, “robinets.” This vocation, like the preceding, depends directly upon the national custom of wine-drinking, and is a thriving branch of trade. The pedlar carried his faucets arranged in holes on a wooden case slung over his back; and to give notice of his approach, he uses a small but powerful trumpet, or horn, about three inches in length, upon which he nearly always plays the same set phrase or air. For a long time I had considerable curiosity as to this instrument, but was a little timid about asking questions of a vender himself; however, one day, seeing one coming out a wine-shop, I thought the moment a favourable one, and approached and proffered my request.

I had made the request timidly, fearful that the man might resent it. On the contrary, he was very gracious; but alas, he was also very drunk, so that I could get little out of him. But I learned where the instrument were made, and a few days later, I ferreted out the obscure shop and held a pleasant interview with the proprietor.

He showed me that the “corne,” as it is called, is made by inserting a brass reed in a section of a cow’s horn, the tip of the horn being used as s cap for the instrument. When played by a novice, it gives only one sound, harsh and piercing; but in the mouth of an experienced spigot-seller, it can be made to give out quite a wide range of notes. To get from the instrument more than one note (mine is in A-flat), the cap must be removed, and the reed in playing must be controlled by the lips. The only two intelligible airs that I heard are those here given in the illustration.

Spigot vender

The pedlars of vegetables, naturally enough, are the most numerous of all the pedlars in the streets of Paris. Although at first it seemed to me that all the fiends of the nether world were passing in procession through my narrow street in the Latin Quarter, I became quite hardened to the din, and I fancy that I now could sleep very comfortably in a boiler-shop. There, among her brothers and sisters in trade, is “the Amazon” – for so my chum and I have named her. She is an energetic, masterful woman, whose voice is like a clarion; she makes her appearance, accompanied by her meek, obedient husband, regularly at eight o’clock. When these two worthies appear, other vegetable-pedlars may as well depart, for the two, by taking turns, can obliterate from the trembling air all cries from weaker lungs than their own. “Pommes de terre! pommes de terre!” shrills down the street. Then, “Choufleurs! artichauts!” rumbles and bellows along in pursuit. And this in turn is followed by fierce screams of “Chicorée sauvage!” (wild chicory, a vegetable used for salad). Then comes an intermission of about three seconds.

“The Amazon” always has the last word, as becomes a woman who occupies the position of superiority in the family. She seems to prefer her cry, “Pommes de terre! pommes de terre!” in a minor key; and indeed, there is nothing frivolous about her. Life is to her a very serious affair; and although I am a little inclined to pity her husband – for I fancy that it may be more than serious, even melancholy, to him – still I have no doubt that he is well cared for and that he does not complain; for, in and of himself, he is nothing, as is true of all husbands of illustrious women. He is only “the husband of the Amazon,” and as such he will go down to posterity.

Old age brings to these street-pedlars no exemption from their daily duties. One old woman passed my window each morning whose age was certainly near seventy. She went about alone, and seemed very feeble, but her voice is surely possessed of perennial youth, and the energy with which she sent forth her long enumeration of vegetables quite swept away the pity that I should otherwise have felt for her. Instead of pushing her cart, as is usually done, she drew it after her, being harnessed to it by several straps and bands. One day I was witness of a slight accident. She was standing beside the curbstone, in her harness, gossiping with a friend in a doorway near at hand, when a heavily laden wagon came slowly past; by careless driving, its hind wheel struck the wheel of the old woman’s cart. Slight as was the blow, the difference in weight of the two vehicles caused the little cart to be whirled sharply around, carrying the shafts and the old woman.

She was overturned in an instant. She was, however, as the Scripture has it, “cast down but not destroyed.” And from her position on the ground, lying precisely as she fell, she sent out a series of screams that brought spectators from all sides. The careless driver descended from his high perch, came back to see what damage had been done, and between him and three men who issued from a neighboring wine-shop, a very Gallic controversy ensued. By the fierce epithets and gestures with which they began, I momentarily expected to see great quantities of blow flow; but the quarrel was all forth. The law, which in such cases imposes heavy penalties for the slightest blow, takes no account of conversation, however loudly and excitedly carried on. And the group, keeping safely within the bounds of the law, conversed and indulged in a war of words; which being finished, the driver mounted his wagon, and the old woman was escorted into the wine-shop; whence she issued, five minutes later, manifestly soothed; and as she went down the street, I could detect no diminution in the power of her vocal organs.

Everybody knows what a plaintive quality can be added to even the most commonplace sounds when heard at night, and this quality is very noticeable in certain of the Parisian street-cries which are heard in the evening or at an early hour in the morning. I recall one or two instances of this, especially where the cries were uttered in a minor key. Early one gray, damp morning, I was awakened from sleep by a new street-cry. My ears had become so quickened by my researches that even in sleep I was alert. I said to myself hastily, as I arose and hurried to the window, “This must be some young beggar-boy, if I may judge by his voice; and an unusually good specimen it is, too, of that rich, soul-stirring timbre found only in the unchanged male voice.”

Old clothes dealer

Thus I conjectured, but when I reached the window I discovered, to my surprise, that the sounds came from a woman of middle age, who, judging by the bundle of rusty-looking garments upon her arm, was an “old-clothes dealer,” a “marchande d’habits”; one of a class very numerous in Paris, embracing within its limits persons of both sexes.

This woman’s cry not only was in a minor key, but, as I have intimated, had a rich yet melancholy quality that cannot be expressed on paper. It was, and still is – for the woman continues her regular rounds – the most plaintive cry of all that I ever heard in the streets and boulevards. Yet the woman had a bright and cheerful face, which contrasted strangely with the lugubrious sounds that she made. I have expressed the cry as best I could, making the middle part a recitative.

Another marchand d’habits, a worn and frayed-looking man, passed before my lodgings twice or thrice a week. Several times I have seen him wearing two silk hats. One of them was evidently his own; the other was probably one that had come to him in the way of trade. I longed so much to see him try another hat on the top of these two, that I was several times at the point of sacrificing a fairly good tile of my own; with one more superadded, the old man would have strongly resembled a Chinese pagoda.

Whitings for frying

Next, in point of numbers, to the dealers in vegetables, come the dealers in fish. They push about the streets their carts – similar in construction to those used for vegetables, and resembling our hand-carts – piled up with several varieties of fish, including rays, skate and bundles of frogs’ legs. One of these fish-women, a person of a severe and acrid countenance, has a pretty little air, and, withal, a very sweet voice; but her face, and not her voice, is the key to her character. One morning, trade seemed to languish, and she fell into conversation with another pedlar. While she was talking, a customer came up to her cart, and she broke off her remarks very abruptly, like a true business woman, to attend to trade. The customer bought quite heavily, and when he departed, she, evidently feeling her superiority over her tradeless neighbor, started off down the street, giving no heed to the questions that were called after her by that person. Seeing that her questions were not answered, the questioner changed them into epithets of an uncomplimentary character. Other epithets were bawled back in return, and the woman of severe countenance was entertaining enough as she at one moment uttered so sweetly her trade-cry, and at the next shouted derisively back some vile epithet.


All these street-people take soloists’ privileges with their words, and twist them into any form that suits their fancy or their needs. In general, the tendency is to get a pronunciation which they can call loudly. The glaziers – with their frames on their backs, as in America – have not a very satisfactory call. Their proper call is “Vitrier” (Glazier). This they all give, though in various modified forms. But as pronounced in French, this word with its close vowels is not sonorous enough to suit the needs of street-trade; it will not carry far along the noisy thoroughfares; and most of the glaziers begin their calls with a loud, reverberating “Ho—!” running at length into the slenderer word “vitrier,” this final word being generally curt, crisp, and an octave lower than the other.

A striking-looking creature is the vender of children’s chairs, who carries tiny wicker chairs piled up aloft on his back, several feet above his head. Often, too, he carries a few in his hands, for the articles, though bulky, are of course very light in weight. His cry can hardly be expressed in musical form, but the words that he uses are noticeable because of their conversational quality. He calls out, as he passes along, as if he were intoning a church service, and looking neither to the right nor to the left – “Des petits chaises, vingt-et-un sous; des petits fauteuils pour les petits enfants” (Little chairs, twenty-one cents; little armchairs for the children).

By far the most confidential communication, however, which is addressed to the public, is the cry, or rather the exhortation, of the dealer in toy birds. He carries about with him a large number of little green parrakeets, skilfully made of cloth and feathers, and as he passes the doorways he looks in and says, “Allez donc, mes petits enfants, allez, cherchez vos parents, qu’ils vous donnent de l’argent, dix centimes deux sous; le joli petit perroquet.” It may be translated thus: “Run along, my little children, run along and find your parents, so that they’ll give you some money, ten centimes two sous, for the pretty little parrakeet.”


Then there was another pedlar, a good friend of mine, a jolly, rotund, talkative fellow who mended chairs – “le raccommodeur de chaises.” He could not, of course, carry about with him many chairs of the ordinary size, but I have actually seen the stalwart fellow carry four and five; though generally he had only osiers with him, and could sit down anywhere and do his repairing of chair-seats. His cry was not very distinct, partly because of the good-natured grin which was chronic with him; but it ran as follows:

“Voilà le rempailleur de chaises! Voilà la raccommodeur de chaises! Voilà le canneleur!”

Another industrious fellow, whose voice seemed to have caught a metallic quality from his vocation, was the repairer of basins, dippers, coffee-pots, and other tinware. He passed regularly on his rounds twice a week; and he often bore upon his back a pile of old tins so large that it demanded and received from other pedestrians the entire sidewalk. His voice often seemed to me to have a half-defiant, triumphant tone as he called out, “Voilà le raccommodeur de casserolles” (Here you are, the repairer of pans).

Good mackerel

After I had resided for several months in Paris, I supposed that I had heard all the cries of the street, multifarious as they are. But one morning a series of notes reached my ears that I had never heard before. On examination, the sounds proved to come from an old woman who was selling cresses. With something of the eagerness of a naturalist who has discovered a new specimen, I dropped my books and hurried down the stairs. First, I dragged my concierge out of his office, to listen to the words, because they were so imperfectly uttered that I could not make them out.

“Do you hear what she says?” I demanded, hastily, at the same time seizing my note-book and scratching a staff for the notes which I designed to capture.

The astonished concierge replied that he did.

“Please write them out for me, then, so that I may be sure of getting them exactly,” I called back to him, as I hurried after the unconscious cress-vender. In a few minutes I came near enough to her to distinguish the sounds more clearly, but there was considerable noise from passing wagons, and I had no little difficulty in disentangling her thin, piping voice from the uproar: “Cresses, cresses, water-cresses, good for the body’s health.”

Before I had satisfied myself of the correctness of my copy, she was beckoned into a house near by, and I waited patiently over five minutes until she came out. After this delay, in following her across a street I narrowly escaped being run over by one of those great three-horse omnibuses that sweep through the crowded streets like mighty Greek chariots. At last, however, I felt satisfied with my transcription of her notes, and walked back to my lodging, where the concierge had kindly written out the words for me. I explained why I had wished for them and showed him the notes which I had taken down, but he only gave me a pitying smile, and evidently thought me a harmless but hopeless lunatic, probably wondering why he had not found it out before.

Many of these pedlars have a ludicrous way of letting their voices crack; and this mannerism when imitated by mischievous boys becomes more ludicrous still to impartial listeners, and a source of great irritation to the pedlars themselves. I have vividly in mind the sounds made by a young fellow, a sturdy business-like man of twenty-five, but they utterly defy my attempts to express them intelligibly on paper. The young man has a strong falsetto voice, and, without ever saying a single distinguishable word, he groans out a prolonged “O—,” repeatedly allowing his voice to fly up an octave; a performance that gives him, to his great annoyance, a train of aspiring juvenile imitators.

I am also reminded, in this connection, of the chimney-sweeps; and picturesque figures they are, too. Several of them contrive to give very skilful falsetto notes, as in “yodeling.”

These sweeps are all from Savoy, in the southeast of France: and they often walk the whole distance to Paris and back again, at least three hundred miles each way. They come early in the autumn, and the people of Paris have a saying that “It is time to feel cold when the chimney-sweep’s cry is first heard.” Generally they are all gone by February, although I have seen them as late as March. Each sweep is accompanied by a boy of a size sufficiently small to enable him to pass easily up and down through the chimneys; and the pair, with sooty clothes and faces, carrying ropes and brushes, perambulate the streets uttering the significant cry “D’haut en bas!” (From top to bottom!)

As these worthy folk from Savoy are extremely dirty, they generally have plenty of room given them on the sidewalk. One sweep that I have seen had lost his voice – nothing strange in such a dusty trade – and his boy, a very imp of darkness, was obliged to do all the calling. Possibly the strain on his voice was too great, or perhaps he felt the importance of his position so strongly that he dared to take unusual liberties; but, at any rate, he generally gave the regular cry, and then, breaking off from his lower or chest voice, ran up out of sight and hearing in falsetto, suddenly appearing again two notes below his original pitch.

To say that these sweeps, particularly the boys, are black with soot, is to say too little. They are awfully and intensely black. The only time when I ever saw on their faces anything that at all approached the color of human flesh, was once when an inky imp of a boy had a hasty drink from a fount at the edge of sidewalk. The stream of water ran over his face with considerable force; and after he had drawn his coat-sleeve vigorously across his mouth, his countenance looked like one of Turner’s most extreme water-colors.

Cress vender

One evening, when chatting with a friend, he said, suddenly, “My dear fellow, you are interested in these street-cries – have you ever heard the fish-woman that plies her trade near the Opéra Comique?”

I pricked up my ears, and felt a naturalist’s eagerness to discover a new specimen. “No, I have never learned about her,” I said.

“Well, you ought to find her out. She has a wonderful voice. She goes down through the Rue St. Marc every morning at about ten o’clock. You’ll know her as soon as you hear her. Everybody turns to see and hear her.”

Enough said. The very next morning I was promptly ready, and I waited near the corner of the Rue de Richelieu and the Rue St. Marc from nine until ten o’clock without hearing any cry that I thought could possibly be the one that I sought.

There was certainly none striking enough to warrant the unstinted praise that had been given by my friend. One fishwoman, however, came along – though she was not the one whom I sought – whose voice was rather pleasant, and her cry I captured and preserved: “Les soles à frire, à frire! Et les merlans, et les merlans!”

Presently a young peasant came by, driving a flock of goats. He and a small dog managed them, piloting them safely through the crowded streets; and by the little dipper which he carried, I saw that he was a milkman, though of a rather rare sort. He seemed to control the goats by a shrill, piping instrument, and its penetrating sound probably served also as a notice to his customers of his approach. He played upon it almost continuously, and elicited from it some extremely beautiful runs and trills. I was quite curious about the queer, flat little instrument, almost wholly concealed within the player’s mouth; it somewhat resembled a diminutive “Pan-pipe.”

I was eager to find out more about it, but a man of whom I asked an opinion told me that the young fellow came from the Pyrenees, and I therefore knew that I should not be able to hold any intelligible conversation with him in his difficult dialect.

As he passed on up through the street, I suddenly heard a sound that I at once felt sure must come from the fishwoman whom I sought. I could hear that it was a very high note, as it came echoing along the thoroughfare; and as it was a long distance away, I knew that it must be very powerful. Its purity of quality, also, struck me from the first. I proceeded eagerly in the direction of the sound, and presently I caught sight of the woman. She drew nearer, and just at that moment she gave her remarkable cry.

Yes, it was she. And, as my friend has told me, everybody in the vicinity looked at her.

I was a good deal disappointed, however, when she came nearer. I had unconsciously inferred from her voice that she would have some degree of personal charm; but as she reached the spot where I stood, I started back in surprise and disappointment, for she was as repulsive in appearance as any old woman of seventy or seventy-five could well be. She was greatly shriveled up, with a parchment-like face, and with only three teeth visible – I counted them carefully. But that wonderful voice! She called a half-dozen words in a very ordinary, even masculine key, in the middle register, and then the last word went suddenly up a full octave; striking, for its absolute pitch, at least as high as I have written it in score: “Ah! qu’il est donc le maquereau!”

The quality of that one final note was extremely pure and flute-like; and, making allowances for the circumstances, which might lead one unconsciously to exaggerate, I say candidly and without hesitation that it was as sympathetic and at the same time as firm a tone as ever I heard in opera.

But how could I get at the words? I set down the notes, without difficulty, in a few moments; but the words! They utterly defied me. After trying once or twice, I looked about me for some one to whom I could apply for assistance. We had moved slowly down the street, and were now directly in the rear of the Opéra Comique. At a venture, I went up to a man who had just come out of the private entrance to the theater; and, hurriedly telling him what I wished, I asked him to write out the words. He kindly took my note-book and listened carefully to the next two cries that the old woman gave; but even he, a Parisian, was baffled. So he went along to the cart and asked the old woman outright.

The old dame seemed rather pleased than otherwise, for she evidently knew that her cry attracted considerable attention; and she repeated the words for us more slowly and intelligibly. I translate them, as nearly as possible, “Ah, how good, then, in the mackerel!” As she talked, she smiled in a way that was intended to be gracious, but was actually cavernous.

Then, in order to complete all, in the kindness of her heart, she gave her remarkable cry twice over for our especial benefit; and I felt, in a measure, like the King of Bavaria who had an entire opera performed for himself alone.

I had the words and music now safely set down in ink upon the page of my note-book, and, thanking the man for his kindness, and complimenting the old dame upon her voice, I went my way.

Ah, what a prima donna that repulsive old fishwoman might have become, if circumstances had only favored her! Instead of filth and poverty, it might have been wealth and fame; instead of “Maqeureau,” it might have been “Casta Diva.”