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.


First published in The Atlantic Monthly of February 1870, written by Charles Shanly.


TO RURAL persons visiting New York, who have wisely avoided the crowded hotels, and taken lodging in comparatively quiet by-streets, the various cries of the city must be a source of wonder, curiosity, doubt, fear, and sundry other emotions, according to circumstances and the respective temperaments of the rural persons. Along Broadway, the cries of the itinerant venders and tradesmen are seldom to be heard; for it is not in the great business thoroughfares that these industrials ply their vocations; and even if they did, their voices would be lost in the dominant din of that clashing, rattling, shrieking, thundering thoroughfare.

An hour or two after midnight, the milk-trains from the rural districts arrive at the several railway stations in the upper part of the city. By three o’clock in the morning the depots in which the milk is deposited are besieged by crowds of milk-carriers in their one-horse wagons, each waiting his turn to have his cans filled. The wagons are generally tidy concerns, painted in bright colors, with the names of the owners, and of the counties or districts from which the milk comes, lettered on them. The horses by which they are drawn are mostly compact, willing animals, and they are almost invariably well fed and groomed. As for the drivers, the greater part are strong-built, sunburnt fellows, with coarse flannel shirts, slouched hats, and tight trousers tucked into heavy boots. They have, nearly without exception, a strong dash of the New York “rough” in them, their fiery qualities not being in the least modified by constant contemplation of the bland fluid in which they deal. Before five o’clock, all the members of this milk brigade are away on their respective rounds throughout the city.

The peculiar cry of the New York milkman is the first that breaks the stillness of early morning. It has long been a puzzle to investigators how this fiendish yell originated, and why that most innocuous and pacifying of marketables, milk, should be announced with a war-whoop to which that of the blanketed Arapahoe of the plains is but as the bleat of a spring lamb. The shriek of the New York milkman has no appreciable connection with the word “milk.” The rural visitor who hears it for the first time in the rosy morn plunges out from his bedclothes and rushes to the window, expectant of one of those sanguinary hand-to-hand conflicts about which he has been so long reading in the New York papers. Instead of gore he sees milk; a long-handled ladle instead of a knife or pistol; and a taciturn man in rusty garments doling out that fluid with it to the sleepy-eyed Hebe who clambers up from the basement with her jug, instead of scalping her of her chignon and adding it to the trophies at his belt. The cry of the New York milkman is an outrage, and a provocation to breach of the peace. More graciously might his presence be announced by the tinkling of a cow-bell, or, what would be equally appropriate, by a blast from the hollow-sounding horn of a cow.

Among the sweetest of the city cries, and with a sadness about it, too, suggestive of the passing away of summer, and the coming of chill autumnal nights, is that of “Hot corn!” It is long after dark when this cry begins to resound in the streets, which are quiet now, the noisy traffic of the day having ceased. Most of the venders of hot corn are women or young girls, though men and boys are often to be seen engaged in the business. Many of them are of the colored race, and it is from these, chiefly, that the most characteristic and musical inflections of the cry are heard in the still hours towards midnight. One of these strains, which has been chanted night after night, for several autumns past, by the same voice, in a central walk of the city, has a very wild and plaintive cadence, as will appear from the following:–

Musical notation for the cry of 'Hot corn

After chanting this strain, the voice repeats the words “hot corn” several times, in a short, jerking note; and then the plaintive little song is heard again, dying away in the distance. On a still September night, when the windows are open, and sleep has not yet locked the senses of the drowsed listener, this cry of “hot corn,” in all its variations, has a very pleasing effect.

What awful-looking cylinder on wheels is this that comes slowly along, floundering over the cobble-stones like a car of Juggernaut, or the chariot of Vulcan on its way to a Cyclopean revel? Within the grimy, wooden tunnel sit two stalwart men, the most observable quality of whom is blackness from head to foot. Whatever color their clothes may originally have been, blackness – positive and extreme blackness – is now their hue. They have the features of the Caucasian races, have these fuliginous sons of Erebus, but their teeth flash and their eyeballs gleam silverly, like those of the African, for their features are dusky as his. Slowly drawled out in a deep, sad monotone, comes the cry “Charcoal” from the chest of one of them. It is a very long-drawn, mournful cry, like that which might come from a dead-cart driven round during a pestilence for the bodies of the victims. Charcoal has got the better of these men, and converted them to its own moods and shades. The thrones on which they sit within the great black cylinder are piles of charcoal. Burnt cork is chalk compared to the charcoal nigrescence of their faces and hands. Charcoal is all over them, and everywhere about. When the charcoal man dies he needs no embalming, no sarcophagus hermetically sealed; for his system is charged with the great antiseptic by which he lives, and he is never so far gone but that he is thoroughly cured by it when dead.

In pleasant contrast with the supernatural cry of the charcoal man is that sweet one of “Strawber-rees!” which first falls upon the ear some balmy morning in June, when the fancies of the city man are all of fragrant meadows and tinkling brooks. Not pleasant, indeed, as it comes from the lips of the “licensed venders,” who hawk fruit about in wagons; for nothing in the way of noise can be more disagreeable than the bawling of these loud-mouthed men. But hark to the clear tone of a woman’s voice, that comes ringing on the ear, repeating at short intervals the one word, with a sudden pitch of the last syllable to the octave above, in a prolonged sostenuto! Passing along the street, there goes the singer, generally a woman of middle age, for but few young girls are observable in this branch of street industry. The procession of the seasons is distinctly marked to city people by the cries of these hawkers. First, the strawberries, redolent of balmy June with its lilac-blossoms and plumed horse-chestnuts. Then, when the freshness of June has passed away, and the dog-day heat of July is upon us, the same note, indeed, is to be heard vibrating in the sultry street; but the libretto is changed, for strawberries are “out” now, and raspberries “in.” Later still, near the close of July, and so throughout August, the wild-flavored medicinal blackberry, suggestive of dusty roadside fences and retreats lonely, takes the place of the others, in company with the huckleberry; and the same ringing cry announces the progress of these along the street.

Among the musical tries of New York City, one of the most peculiar is that of the chimney-sweeps. Their vocation is confined exclusively to colored people, by whom also the shaking of carpets and the whitewashing of walls is looked on as a monopoly by right of usage. The chimney-sweeps go in pairs, – two stalwart negroes, thoroughly saturated by nature with the color appropriate to their craft. They bristle all over with the implements of their trade. Iron scrapers and great spiky trusses, that look like the weapons of some savage tribe, are suspended at their broad backs. So patched are their garments, – which consist of nothing more than the remnants of shirt and trousers, – that it would be impossible for the most expert chiffonnier to detect the original rag to which all the others have attached themselves in the course of time. A very singular cry, not unlike the yodling refrain of Tyrolean cragsmen, is that of the chimney-sweep. Instances of peculiar qualities of voice are not uncommon among negroes. Miss Greenwood, well known in musical circles as the “Black Swan,” sometimes startles her hearers by descending from the fluty upper register of a woman’s voice to the deep chest notes of a masculine barytone or basso. The strain uttered by the sweep is usually a simple variation of three notes; but I remember one who used to perambulate a west-side ward of New York some years ago, and who extended the brief song of his craft into the air of “Home, Sweet Home,” adapted to some words expressive of soot, and smoke, and various other things which, if allowed to run riot, are calculated to render “home” very much the reverse of sweet.

Execrable beyond description are the various, not to say innumerable, howls vented by the class of mounted guerillas known as “licensed venders.” These hucksters usually go by twos, one of them attending to the wagon in which the produce for sale is stowed, while the other shambles along the sidewalk to announce their approach. The alternate stunning roars of these importunate retailers make windows rattle. Sometimes the cart contains several kinds of vegetables or fruits, and the driver bawls out something intended to represent the names of these. No sooner has his roar ceased to “split the ears of the groundlings,” than it is taken up by his comrade – or accomplice, rather – on the sidewalk, who, clapping a hand to one ear, as if to prevent his head from being blown off, repeats the cry with a hideous augmentation of discordant yell, down into areas, and up at three-story windows. As in the hailing of a skipper in a gale of wind, the vowels alone of these vociferations are intelligible, the consonants being either swallowed by the vociferator, or frittered away by attrition into incomprehensible spray. The hawkers of this class who deal in fish do not utter any cry, but herald their coming, not indeed with a flourish of trumpets, but with shattering blasts from a tin horn of execrable tone.

One of the most doleful of city cries is that of the men who slowly plod their daily rounds with brooms for sale. In many instances these men are blind, the trade in brooms being almost the only street occupation, with the exception of mendicancy, followed by blind persons in New York. It is its association with blindness, perhaps, that gives to the cry of “Brum!” the melancholy sentiment always evoked by it in the more tranquil streets of the city, – a cry pitched in a subdued, hollow voice, which, “not loud, but deep,” reverberates to a great distance along the street. Some of the wanderers are led by small boys or girls, while others grope their way along the side-walk with sticks. I have never seen one of them led by a dog. Who ever sees a blind man led by a dog in this harassing city of New York? “Poor dog Tray” is dead long ago, and if he left any successors, their instinct has told them that they have no business here. There is one blind broom-hawker in New York who celebrates his bristly wares in song, chanting two or three verses in commendation of them, at intervals, as he gropes his way along. The ordinary corn-broom is the staple article offered by these hawkers, but their outfit usually comprises every variety of sweeping-brushes, feather-dusters, and other such articles, known to careful housekeepers by sundry distinctive names.

An arrant Bohemian, to be met with everywhere in New York streets, as well as far out in the suburbs, and even along the quiet country roads beyond, is the peripatetic glazier. No street industrial is more familiar to city folks than he. He is, invariably, a wanderer from some country of Continental Europe, – Germany, Italy, or France, – and he seldom possesses more English than enables him to higgle for a job. The itinerant glazier is usually an undersized man, adapted to worming himself through vacuous window-sashes and broken panes of glass. He is oftener dark of complexion than otherwise, and he generally wears a heavy fringe of frowzy hair around his unwashed face. Slung between his shoulders is a sort of wooden rack, in the compartments of which rest vertically panes of glass of assorted sizes. He wields a long wooden ruler, to one end of which is affixed a dab of putty, and between his teeth he usually clenches a dirty wooden pipe, with the fumes of which, slightly corrected by those of garlic and rancid oil, his entire person is well saturated. From coarse feeding and exposure to the weather his voice is generally raucous, and yet there is nothing positively aggravating in his sing-song cry of “Glass t’ p’t een!” delivered with a long-drawn enunciation of the last syllable. This man frequents certain of the lowest haunts of the city, where he harbors with his like, spending much of his earnings on lager-beer and the exciting vicissitudes of play with a very greasy pack of cards. He is frequently a great convenience to housekeepers whose windows require immediate repair; but his character for honesty is not above suspicion, and it is generally considered advisable to keep a good watch on him while he is occupied about the windows of a room in which articles of value are lying at. It has been asserted that numbers of these men were engaged in the famous draft riots by which New York was made so lively in July, 1863: though the principal proof against them seems to have been the vast number of windows shattered on that memorable occasion, and supposed to have been broken with an eye to business.

The curt, peremptory cry of the pungent person who jerks down into every basement, as he passes, the word “soapfat!” uttered with a quick, barking snap, is one that seldom fails to arouse cook-maid or kitchen-wench from reveries of dress and “Sundays out.” He usually carries a very large tin pail, into which he crowds the scrapings of the kitchen utensils and the fatty fragments of cooked meals, until the mass, packed and pounded with his dirty fists, assumes the appearance of axle-grease, and becomes too heavy for him to carry any further from door to door. Then he slings it on his back, and travels away with it to one of those fragrant establishments in the eastern districts of the city, or elsewhere, in which the process of “rendering” grease for various manufactures is carried on. Dogs twitch their sensitive noses at him as lie goes, and some of the more lean and hungry ones will even follow his footsteps for the chance of picking up any scraps of the savory cargo that may fall in his wake. The kitchen stuff that forms the staple of the soapfat-man’s commerce is a perquisite of the cook, who therefore looks upon him with some degree of complacency. He enjoys a very extensive acquaintance among the cook-maids on his round, and. being oily by occupation and generally Irish by nativity, he has his larded jokes and tallowy banter for each and all of them.

“Rags! – rags!” is the cry of a rough-looking varlet who carries a large dirty sack for the reception of such worn-out garments and discarded textiles in general as are made a source of supplementary revenue by thrifty housewives. It is a very disagreeable cry, being usually uttered in a harsh, aggressive tone, and at short intervals. When the ragman has filled his sack, he trudges away with it to some deep, musty cellar, to the troglodytes in which he sells his motley merchandise for so much a pound. Here it is sorted, packed in large bales, and sent away to various places for its conversion into paper. And so it is that light comes to men, in time, through so insignificant a medium as the man who contributes to the din of the city with his discordant “Rags! – rags!” – while literature is indebted to him in about the same degree that it is to the harsh-voiced water-fowl that lends aid to it with its quill.

Yonder, flashing in the sun, and taking up more of the sidewalk than is quite convenient for passengers, slowly moves along a great assortment of tin utensils, ranging from the skillet of smallest size to pans and pails of the largest. The unretentive colander is there, and the porous dredging-box clinks against the teakettle, which will sing to it in some snuggery by and by. In the centre of this dazzling arrangement walks a robust woman, – the sun around which this system of tin planets revolves. She pauses very often, chanting her shrill cry of “Tin-ware!” to the clinking accompaniment of her pans and kettles. Sometimes this peripatetic female leaves off roaming the city for a while, and displays her wares at the trap-door of some cellar beneath a market-building, or on a sidewalk in some busy street. Then she does not utter her cry; but it shall be heard again, here and there throughout the city, when the weather is favorable for “going on rounds.”

A cry that is heard less frequently than any of the others mentioned in this paper, is that of “Honeycomb!” For a brief season in the fall, cleanly dressed men, in white jackets and aprons, and with white linen caps on their heads, are to be seen hawking the luscious produce of the bee through the city. The honeycomb is placed on wooden trays, which they balance on their heads with much dexterity, turning hither and thither, and winding through crowded thoroughfares, without putting their hands to the trays. There is something pleasantly rural about the cry of these men, for it carries one away to flowery meadows where bees revel, and to gardens made more delightful by their drowsy hum.

A persevering persecutor is that caitiff who looks up at your window, should you happen to appear at it, and inquires of you, in hoarse, nasal accents, whether you have “any old hats?” He will remain gesticulating, and jerking his query at you, for five minutes together, and the chances are that he will at last cross over to your doorway, and, ringing for admittance, try to force his way up to your sanctum. This trader generally wears a tall, greasy stove-pipe hat, as an emblem of his vocation, and lie carries battered hats of all fashions and textures in both hands, and suspended round his neck. Often he is an Irishman; not unfrequently a Polish Jew. The domestics of the house, with whom discarded hats are a perquisite, find the vagrant under notice a very hard one to deal with. His power of undervaluing articles is almost sublime for its audacity, and his inward chuckle, as he walks off with his bargain, attests his appreciation of the swindle perpetrated.

The monosyllabic cry of “Wud!” repeated in quick succession and mournful tone, announces the coming of the cart in which the firewood-man and his resinous freight are trundled along. It is in winter, chiefly, that this dealer plies his commerce. He is very welcome about Christmas-time, among those people especially, whose traditions move them to “crowd on all steam” at that festive time, and to keep their stoves aglow with firewood for the Christmas turkey and its anxious friends. But his cry has nothing of the Christmas carol about it. nothing that is cheerful and appropriate to the season, and in fact is one of the most doleful and depressing of city cries.

The tinker, with his portable fire-apparatus, and his monotonous “Pots, pans, ‘nd kettl’s t’ mend!” is a wandering mechanic well known in New York streets, as likewise is the man who cries for “Umbrellas to mend!” and usually contrives to manipulate the ribs or springs of those intrusted to him, so that they will need further repairs at a time to suit his convenience. Various cries are occasionally to be heard throughout the city, the significance of which can only be guessed at from the kind of wares hawked by the utterers of them. Pedlers, with baskets full of fancy glass-ware, – jars, vases, and other such knick-knacks as are used for table or chimney-piece ornaments, – carry on their business in the by-streets. They utter low, droning cries from time to time, as they slowly pace along by the area railings, but it is generally impossible to recognize any verbal combination in their smothered accents. The most remarkable instance of an unintelligible street-cry that I remember was that of an old man, – a German, I think, – who went his round of certain streets in the city for a brief term, a year or two since. He carried in either hand a tin pail with a cover on it; and so remarkable was his note that, when he for the first time made himself heard in the street, windows were thrown up, and unfeeling gazers greeted him therefrom with shouts of ribald laughter. A strenuous wheeze, combined with a sneeze, and terminating in a laborious shriek, were the elements of which this unaccountable proclamation was composed. I never knew any person who could explain the cry, or the article which it was intended to announce. Nobody ever seemed to buy anything from the old man, and so he shortly passed away from the busy street, a hopeless mystery.