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 is a single chapter reproduced from Richardson Little Wright’s 1927 book Hawkers & Walkers in Early America. A search of the Catalog of Copyright Entries shows that the original United States copyright was renewed for a further 28 years in late 1954, but that there was no subsequent renewal. Wright worked for and edited the magazine House and Garden for 35 years, as well as authoring an eclectic range of books.

Hawkers & Walkers book frontispiece



SCARCELY a section of the country but still has its local vendors and its memory of legions of men who, in one guise or another, swelled the ranks of the itinerant army. This book, for example, is being written in a Connecticut valley through which to-day pass a ladder peddler, an itinerant butcher, and an oil vendor who is also a barber and who cuts the shaggy locks of the farmers and even ventures to bob and shingle the heads of one or two of the more advanced farm women. A few miles from the house dwell the sons of an erstwhile candle peddler, and almost everyone here can remember the itinerant vendors of Indian specifics who regularly passed through the valley.

So it is true of almost every section that can boast more than fifty years of permanent settlement. From one restricted area in Massachusetts come recollections of a stoneware peddler who exchanged his wares for paper rags: any quantity of tinware peddlers; the ice cream, the hulled corn and hominy men; the fisherman with his horn selling Connecticut River shad and the fruit man vending watermelons and early Delaware peaches; the yeast man who kept his precious fluid—barm, it was called locally—in a jar in front of him in his cart; and the soft soap seller who exchanged his slimy mess for suet and beef and pork drippings.

Without the regular visits of these local vendors country life would have been very dull indeed. They had their local names, and picturesque names they often were. “Dewdrop” Herrington of one New York State section was so called because at all seasons of the year he had a dewdrop pendant from the tip of his nose; others were called “Leather Breeches,” Jim or Tom, because they were clothed in these ancient and hardy habiliments. One tea vendor was rightly known as “Johnnie Cup O’ Tea.”

In his wanderings, Hawthorne even met up with a nut vendor—“an old man, selling the meats of butternuts. He was dressed in a dark, thin coat, ribbed velvet pantaloons and a sort of moccasins or shoes, appended to the legs of woollen stockings. . . . His nuts were contained in a square tin box having two compartments, one for the nuts and another for maple sugar, which he sells in small cakes. . . . He said that butternuts did not sell so well as walnuts, which are not yet in season; that he might to-day have sold fifty cents’ worth; of walnuts, never less than a dollar’s worth, often more; and when he went around with a caravan, he had sold fifteen dollars’ worth per day, and once as much as twenty dollars’ worth.” Truly a prosperous merchant in little things, this nut vendor!


Likewise we could encounter, on these early American roads, all manner of specialized vending to one or two trades in a restricted diet—cotton yarns for those who wove rag carpet at home; wooden screws turned out of hickory and sold to cabinet-makers in towns around the maker’s neighbourhood; blacksmiths who specialized on making nails and sold them through the countryside. There were also those who farmed out work, such as the controlling agents of the farmer-cobblers or farmer-weavers or even of the wives of farmers who made shirts—took the cut goods from the travelling agents, sewed them, laundered them and then were paid by the agent when he came around for his stock.

The most cunning figure of all these specialists was the itinerant seller of locks who hailed from Bridgeport, one Alfred C. Hobbs, representing the firm of Day & Newell. He specialized in bank locks, did Alfred, and it was his duty to convince bankers that the locks they were using were worthless. Mr. Hobbs acquired a suspicious set of implements, and a stock of Day & Newell’s locks, and thus equipped, he set forth upon the unsuspecting financial world. His first call was at a bank in Stamford, where he challenged the directors. They accepted his challenge and promised that if he could open the outside door of the bank and get into the vault in two hours without injuring the locks, they would consider his wares. Mr. Hobbs examined the keyholes, took a few instruments from his bag, and within twenty-three minutes he had picked the outside lock and the three locks on the vault. The year of this great feat was 1847 and the month January. From that time on Mr. Hobbs devoted his entire time and energies to travelling about the country, picking bank locks and selling bankers his special brand of locks to supplant them.

The train hawkers, with which we are all familiar, seem to have found their opportunity as soon as trains began to run. Newsboys were evident on trains in districts where schoolmasters were a curiosity. They sold newspapers, books, apples, biscuits, and such, and were so skilled that they could figure to the exact minute when the train began to pick up speed and they had to jump off. On his visit to America in 1849, Sir Charles Lyell tells of one of them calling out “in the midSt of the pine barren between Columbus and Chehaw, ‘A novel by Paul de Kock, the Bulwer of France, for twenty-five cents! All the Go! More popular than The Wandering Jew.’ ”


Since the coming of the automobile the character of city streets has changed radically. To-day they are arteries for the passing of swift traffic; once on a time they were also the avenues of street vending of all sorts. It was the custom of merchants to live above their shops, so there was no sharp distinction between the residential and business districts. Wherever the huckster went he found trade.

Because there were so many complaints from inhabitants who had been imposed upon by hucksters or “shinners,” as they were often called, early town authorities established the public market.

In many Colonial cities and towns this weekly or semiweekly fair or market was a fixed institution. To them the farmers brought their produce. To them also, they drove their “show” beef, fat cattle, decorated with flowers and garlands and ribbons, and preceded by a trumpeter or fiddler who led the procession to the slaughtering.

Housewives, basket on arm, or trailed by servants carrying baskets, went to market. The market knew no social distinctions. New York, for example, had five markets by 1766 and every day was market day save Sunday. Weights and measures were sealed, and an eye was kept on the condition of meats and butter sold. In Philadelphia, on Tuesday and Friday evenings before the market day, the bells of Christ Church were pealed. They came to be known as “Butter Bells.”

Cherries and peaches

The remains of these markets can be seen in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, as well as New York, and in Baltimore it is still en regle for the housewife to carry her basket to the stalls. As to-day, so in the years between 1700 and 1850, all manner of wares were found at the market—garden truck, meats, fish, cheeses, groceries, shoes, clothing, piece goods and articles of household manufacture.

Another form of collective street selling in pre-Revolutionary days was the vendue or auction sale. Goods were sold cheap; and often, as an inducement, rum would be passed out by the auctioneers, who were mostly peddlers—or “merchant peddlers,” as they were referred to in Pennsylvania where they were especially active. The peddler Hawthorne describes on a preceding page, was holding a vendue. In 1726 we find the established merchants of Philadelphia agitating against these peddlers. Their haunts were said to be the resorts of idlers and their sales, frauds. The governor refused to sign the bill because the market and the auction afforded buying opportunities for the poor, whereas the stores of the established merchants served only the rich and aristocratic.

In the same manner was the business of the huckster protested against in many cities and towns. The trade of the established market found unfair competition coming from itinerant hucksters who, by peddling through the streets, or by appearing at the stalls of the markets before the local merchants and farmers could set up their goods, would forestall profitable trade. Many cities passed ordinances against them.

In Marblehead, Massachusetts, before the Revolution the market was open on Tuesdays and Thursdays till one o’clock and on Saturdays till sunset, but no huckster was allowed to sell provisions of any kind until after one o’clock, i.e., until after the market had done its business.

Pennsylvania threatened an equally strict regulation against these vagrant traders. In New York City, as early as 1691, a city ordinance forbade hucksters selling their wares until the market had been open for two hours. In 1707 all street hawking was forbidden, on penalty of twenty shillings for each offense, half of which fine went to the informer, and half to the city poor.

By 1738 the New York Gazette was publishing the “Act to Restrict Hawkers and Pedlars” by which a £5 import tax was exacted and £5 for each horse and three shillings for the license. This law, however, did not apply to persons selling fish, fruit, or victuals, or to those who were selling “wares of his or their own manufacturing . . . nor any Tinker, Glasier, Cooper, Plummer, Taylor or other person usually trading in mending or making of Cloaths, Kettles, Tubs or Hoas-hould goods.”

In 1740 New York also passed a city ordinance forbidding negroes, Indians, and mulattoes from selling boiled Indian corn, peas, peaches, etc., in the streets, lest they spread infectious diseases. Offenders were to be publicly whipped.

From this legislation we can deduce two facts—that street peddling in New York City, at least prior to the Revolution, was not so common as is generally supposed; and that it really developed only after the turn of the nineteenth century.

Pushcart peddling, such as we find to-day in New York, Chicago, Boston, and other cities, is an outgrowth of the huckstering that arose after 1800, only to-day it is mainly in the hands of Jews and Italians.

Despite his bad name, the huckster served a useful purpose in that he brought his wares to the housewife’s door, and that he served the poorer classes. He was a true itinerant, although his field of wandering was limited to the city and its immediate environs. Moreover he was a picturesque figure, for he called his wares, and his street cries were among the pleasant (or unpleasant) noises of our early cities and towns.


Nowadays city people know that spring has come when they see the flower vendor’s cart, spilling red geraniums, trundled down the street and hear his unflowery and raucous solicitation. They rush to their doors, to their windows—and somehow, life takes on a happier aspect. Imagine how the housewife of a century ago used to listen for the tinkling bell of the muffin boy or the horn of the grimy man selling charcoal! The streets at times were a veritable Babeldom in their confusion of tongues. Vociferous and importunate newsboys shouted as loudly then as they do now—and some of the papers were just as scandalous as our own.

The charcoal man went around with his cart and sold charcoal for lighting fires at thirty-five cents a barrel (that was the Philadelphia price of 1850). His was a long narrow wagon and, although he was a sadly besmirched cadger, he sometimes sported a blue and white checked apron. Up to 1835 in Philadelphia he used to blow a horn, but this so unnerved the more sensitive souls of that somnolent city that a city ordinance was passed to silence him. So he used a handbell and sang a song, almost as noisily as he had blown his horn, that went this way:—

Charcoal by the bushel,
Charcoal by the peck,
Charcoal by the frying pan
Or any way you lek!

In autumn the woodman would appear. His cry was, “Wud! Wud! Wud! Wud! Wud!” uttered staccato. The song of the soft soap man went, “Sam! Sam! The soap fat man!” Brick-dust vendors—usually a negro woman with a tub carried on the head—sold fine, pounded, salmon-brick dust for scouring knives. Sand men* used the cry, “Sand your kitchens! Sand your floors!” or “Want any Sand? Want Sandy?” Also there was the milkman—still with us—who used to utter blood-curdling cries early in the morning. Likewise a great variety of vendors of food.

The local fish dealers in early times first carried their wares in panniers on horseback, or in pushcarts. Later, in New England, they took to a two-wheeled vehicle covered with white canvas, the vendor sitting on the shafts, his feet dangling. In Philadelphia and the South the pushcart was used till quite lately. Various cries had this peddler—“Fresh fish fit for the pan,” or in shad season, “Shad! Buy any shad!” and in some cities was heard this deathless lyric:—

Here comes the fishman!
Bring out your dishpan,
Porgies at five cents a pound!

Sometimes these fish hucksters blew horns and the tin horn came to be called in some districts, a “fish-horn.”

In Philadelphia and the South the crab man was a regular figure—commonly a negro pushing a wheelbarrow of live crabs. “Crabs! Crabs! Alive!” went his song, or

Fresh, fresh crabs,
Fresh Baltimore crabs;
Put them in the pot
With the lid on top;
Fresh Baltimore crabs!

The Philadelphia and Baltimore oyster vendors were an accommodating lot: they had a pushcart with a table attached, equipped with tin plates, forks, vinegar cruet, salts and peppers, and you Stepped up to the oysterman’s cart and as he opened his wares, ate them from the half shell al fresco. In the autumn, honeycomb vendors appeared—men in white jackets and aprons with white linen cap, and carrying a large wooden tray of honeycomb balanced skilfully on the head.

Clams and charcoal

Women were the special vendors of fruit and vegetables before the descent of Greeks, Armenians, and Italians. Sometimes they went about with a tray on the head and cried their wares through the Streets. Wilmington, Delaware, had a picturesque and rotund lassie known as “Dutch Molly,” who peddled vegetables, and is said to have had quite a past. She also possessed a meek little husband whose trade was tailoring and, when his viking wife wasn’t around, told fortunes! In late summer came peaches, and the cry for these was, “Peaches, Oh, here dey go!” Watermelons also appeared and were called “Watermelyuns” in the itinerant vernacular, together with apropos remarks as to their ripeness.

The most musical of all the cries was that of the hominy seller. At first hominy was a negro delicacy but after 1828, white folks began to enjoy it, and you find hominy hucksters on the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Their cry went “Hominy! Beautiful hominy!” or they sang this refrain:—

Hominy man is on his way
To sell his good hominy.

Pepper pot is a dish that can be relished only by those who hail from that Mecca of gastronomic delights, Philadelphia. In that city were found negro women pushing carts on which were round kettles of pepper pot kept warm over charcoal, some pretty blue striped bowls and spoons. They chanted this inducement:—

All hot! All hot!
Makee back strong!
Makee live long!
Come buy my pepper pot!

The sweet potato man of Philadelphia in the first half of the last century was a bard of no mean calibre. His street song went:—

My hoss is blind and he’s got no tail,
When he’s put in prison I’ll go his bail.
Yed-dy go, sweet potatoes, oh!
Fif-en-ny bit a half peck!

Beside these were to be seen chimney sweeps—usually small negro boys led by a parent, who announced his offspring’s vocation with a sort of Tyrolean yodeling song, “Sweep-ho! Sweep-ho! Sweep-ho!” the song the sweep would sing when he issued from the chimney. Chimneys had to be swept once a month and forty shillings was the fine if your chimney took fire in consequence of neglect.

Women and girls selling hot corn were not uncommon. And their song was a delight to the ear:—

Hot corn! Hot corn!
’Ere’s yer lily-white hot corn!

One hot corn girl especially seems to have captured public imagination. She sold in the streets of New York. Her name was Clio, a quadroon fair to look upon, of about twenty summers, daughter of a fugitive slave. Her slow chanting voice was one to throw the passer-by into raptures. Stephen C. Foster tried to make a song of her cry. “There’s a wild, wooing tone in her voice,” he said, “that I cannot catch.” So the song was never written.

Pastry boys carried rolls, muffins, and sweets on trays on their heads. They were subsequently supplanted by the muffin man, who appeared late in the afternoon carrying a basket and tinkling a bell. Wilmington, Delaware, had a well-known pastry seller, a Michael Wolf, who carried a cakeboard on his head piled high with hot gingerbread, iced cakes and sweet rusks. A worthy fellow, old Michael, and for his services to the sweet tooth of men and children, a kindly Providence permitted him to live to the ripe old age of eighty-nine. He died in 1825.

Revolutionary Philadelphia also boasted its gingerbread man, and a great person he was—Christopher Ludwick. He came to Philadelphia from Germany in 1753 and set up as a gingerbread-baker and confectioner. From this trade he amassed a fortune. During the Revolution he gave freely of his funds to the cause and even served in the ranks, where he got into contact with Hessian troops among the British and persuaded great numbers of them to desert.

He was appointed Baker-General to the Continental Army—perhaps the first man and the last ever to have held such a post. When the hideous yellow fever epidemic Struck Philadelphia, Ludwick laboured with his own hands baking bread which he gave to the destitute. He died in 1801, and all his money was left to the poor children of Philadelphia. And so his gingerbread was really a Living Bread that came down from Heaven, whereof, if a man eats, he shall live forevermore.

A less elegant figure—usually a darky—was the garbage man, but he did not lack his song, which went this way:—

Bring out yer slops to feed me pigs
To buy some meat fer me niggers to eat.

The glazier went about the Streets and his proclamation, “Glass put in!” was transformed to “Glash t’ p’t eene.” Umbrella menders, tinkers, rag men and purchasers of old clothes had their individual street utterances. The organ grinder was a common sight, both those who had monkeys and those who carried miniature panoramas. Also the scissors grinder went around tinkling a little bell, as he does today. He was found in practically every city and town. Occasionally you encountered an ambitious scissors grinder who proclaimed his potential services by blasts on an old army bugle.

Another type of bell ringer has passed entirely save in one or two New England towns where he is still preserved as a picturesque figure. The town crier had to read proclamations to the populace, announce runaway servants and apprentices, and sometimes he served as night watchman. In the last role it was his duty to patrol the streets, “to give notice of ye time of night, what weather, etc., according to custom . . . and to continue ye said perambulation until break of day.”

New York cries

In Philadelphia the night watchmen carried rattles, doubtless to warn conscientious burglars of their coming! This archaic type of policeman disappeared from the City of Brotherly Love about 1848. Our early policeman had some strange tasks. In Albany before the Revolution they were required to correct children found playing on the Sabbath, and they were often seen entering a front yard and administering physical chastisement to naughty, Sabbath-breaking boys!


In Charledon some of the dreet vending was conducted by negroes who spoke Gullah, the quacking patois of the littoral and sea islands between Charleston and Savannah. Thus a negro would come along the street crying his chickens:

“Here one, here murrer, here two pun tapa ’turrer here tree wid e two leg tie to garra.” (Here is one, here is another, here are two on top of each other, here are three with their two legs tied together).

Also, the Charleston vendor of porgies would proclaim to the populace how human these fish really are, as he discovers when he tries to catch them off Black Fish Shoals:—

Porgy walk and porgy talk
And porgy eat with knife and fork,
Get yer nice por-gy!

Another poetical huckster was heard to shout:—

Mullet! Mullet! Mullet!
Flounder and Black Fish!
Shark steaks for dem what likes ’em;
Sword Fish for dem what fights ’em;
Fish-ee! Fish-ee!

When travellers reached New Orleans, they heard street cries in the Creole argot—marchandes from the St. Mary market or the environs of Carrollton crying, “Belle des Figues! Belle des Figues!” “Bons petites calas! Tout chauds! Tout chauds!” “Confitures coco!” “Pralines, Pistache, Pralines, Pacanes!” The bayou peddlers, who went about the waterways near the city, were negroes mostly. They sang trist little songs of very few notes, doubtless what we now call “blues.”

However not always was the vending so musical. The levees of New Orleans were commercial and racial beehives, especially when boats were leaving for up-river. About them swarmed “little boats filled with pedlary,” as one traveller in ’51 describes them. “The Jew was there with his hundredblade pen knives, sponges and metallic tablets; the Yankee with his curious knick-knacks brought from every auction mart in the town; nondescripts with oranges, bananas and conch shells, which latter, now and then were blown with sounds resembling the bray of a mule when touched with colic.” Here too, was a colourful melange of peoples— French, Spaniards, Americans, Creoles, quadroons, mulattoes, Mexicans, and negroes.

We have noted the plaster cast sellers from Lucca who tramped our city streets and country byways. His fellow Italians went about with organs and monkeys or with harps, prior to the Civil War. In Philadelphia the street music consisted mainly of negroes singing, and occasionally an old Scotch-Irishman with Irish bag-pipes. Italian children used to sell flowers on the Streets of New York, and, in a later day, their little brothers took to bootblacking, thereupon supplanting the negroes, who were the fird bootblacks in New York. In New Orleans, the Italian having passed above this trade, bootblacking fell again into the hands of negroes. Later the itinerant selling of fruit through the New York streets was controlled by Italians—Genoese and Sicilians mostly.


Although many of the Yankee peddlers travelled great distances to distribute their wares, there were groups of itinerants in restricted areas who devoted their energies to serving the needs of their own people and speaking their own tongue. We find this among the bayou peddlers of the district around New Orleans, who spoke a Creole patois— French and Indian mixed—and among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose dialect was a fusion of virgin Indian words, German, Huguenot French, Welsh, English, Swedish, Hollandish, and Scotch-Irish solecisms.

The cross-section of Pennsylvania prior to and immediately after the Revolution offers interesting sectional divisions—a predominance of English-speaking Quakers in the east, a layer of Germans in the middle, in what are now Berks, Lebanon, Lancaster, and Lehigh Counties, and a fringe of Scotch-Irish in what were then the wild frontiers of the state.

The Scotch-Irish were wanderers—they drifted down the valleys to Georgia and out the Ohio until they were scattered over the face of the country, and left their mark wherever they went. But the Pennsylvania Dutch were clannish and settled folk. An agricultural people, they resented the idea of moving about. We do not find them migrating but we do find a distinct race of itinerants who spoke their tongue and who served them.

In the vernacular of these Pennsylvania Dutch all itinerants were known collectively as fusgaengers, foot-goers, and included the kramera, or business men, the pokmon, or peddlers who sold klanichkada, or knick-knacks, and herdsing or house-furnishings; krout-brondrela, or blousmon, vendors of herbs; shoonmachera, cobblers, Zinkera, shpengler or kessel-flickers, tinkers or pewter-menders; Shreinera, cabinetmakers; blechmon, tinware dealers; wevera weavers; letter-orsha, chimney-sweepers; safemon, soap-maker; lichtermon, candle-makers; pictarmon, artists; foosgeigera, wandering fiddlers; glofamon, harpsichord teachers; geikmon, violin instructors; donsamon, jig dancers; gasharmon, harness makers; predichera, or pora, preachers; lamarar or Aw-bay-tzamen, teachers; and gloferer, piano or melodeon men, music teachers who carried a small collapsible organ strapped to their backs.

These nomads were generally of German descent. Honest fellows and observant, none knew the by-roads better than they. In return for their talents and work they were housed and fed. Besides selling their wares and plying their trades, they served as messengers, carrying all manner of missives— love, business, gossip. A few expounded the Gospel on Sundays. It was quite common to find one or two of them scholarly men, possessing a remarkable knowledge of the classics and of literature. This type, however, were usually seeking solace in peddling, from past love affairs and disappointments.

Going farther west in colonial Pennsylvania, we find the Scotch-Irish. And while they did not produce their own distinctive race of itinerants, they had one or two types that wandered locally—the ballad singer and the musician. Whereas the Germans brought the violin or fiddle to Pennsylvania, and the Huguenots the dulcimer, the Scotch-Irish introduced the bag-pipe and the cruit or harp. In the early days old men used to wander from settlement to settlement and sing the songs of Jacobite times and the Scotch Border. Pipers used to go about, too, showing up at local fairs, horse races and other gatherings. The fiddler attended back-woods dances.

* Before the Revolution in houses that lacked carpets, this sand was spread on the floor and drawn into fanciful figures with the sweep of the broom.