A peddler, in British English pedlar, also known as a canvasser, chapman, cheapjack, hawker, higler, huckster, monger, or solicitor, is a traveling vendor of goods. In England, the term was mostly used for travellers hawking goods in the countryside to small towns and villages; they might also be called tinkers or gypsies. In London more specific terms were used, such as costermonger.
Peddlers have a long and colourful history. From antiquity, peddlers filled the gaps in the formal market economy by providing consumers with the convenience of door-to-door service. They operated alongside town markets and fairs where they often purchased surplus stocks which were subsequently resold to consumers. Peddlers were able to distribute goods to the more geographically isolated communities such as those who lived in mountainous regions of Europe and consumers who found it difficult to attend town markets. Thus, peddlers played an important role in linking these consumers and regions to wider trade routes. Some peddlers worked as agents or travelling salesmen for larger manufacturers, thus were the precursor to the modern travelling salesman.
In Europe, suspicions of dishonest or petty criminal activity was long associated with peddlers and travellers. Regulations to discourage small-scale retailing by hawkers and peddlers, promulgated by English authorities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and reinforced by the Church, did much to encourage negative attitudes towards peddlers. From the 16th century, peddlers were often associated with negative connotations - attitudes which persisted until well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The origin of the word, known in English since 1225, is unknown, but is possibly an Anglicised version of the French pied, Latin pes, pedis "foot", referring to a petty trader travelling on foot.
Peddlers have been known since antiquity and possibly earlier. They were known by a variety of names throughout the ages, including Arabber, hawker, costermonger (English), chapman (medieval English), huckster, itinerant vendor or street vendor. Typically, peddlers operated door-to-door, plied the streets or stationed themselves at the fringes of formal trade venues such as open air markets or fairs. In the Greco-Roman world, open-air markets served urban customers, while peddlers filled in the gaps in distribution by selling to rural or geographically distant customers. According to marketing historian, Eric Shaw, the peddler is "perhaps the only substantiated type of retail marketing practice that evolved from Neolithic times to the present." The political philosopher, John Stuart Mill wrote that "even before the resources of society permitted the establishment of shops, the supply of [consumer] wants fell universally into the hands of itinerant dealers, the pedlars who might appear once a month, being preferred to the fair, which only returned once a year."
Biblical references to the terms, peddler or huckster, are relatively frequent, attesting to the antiquity of the concept. The term 'peddler' was often used to describe those who spread the word of God. The book of Corinthians, for instance, has the following phrase, "For we are not as so many, peddling the word of God." (Corinthians 2:17). The term, 'huckster' appears more frequently in the King James version of the Bible and for the main part, it appears that it carried perjorative connotations, possibly arising from the widespread practice of adulterating foods and short-changing on weights and measures. The Apocrypha, for example, has the following, "A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong ; and an huckster shall not be freed from sin" (Ecclesiasticus 26:29).
In some economies the work of itinerant selling was left to nomadic minorities, such as Gypsies, travellers, or Yeniche who offered a varied assortment of goods and services, both evergreens and (notoriously suspicious) novelties. In 19th century USA, peddling was often the occupation of immigrant communities including Italians, Greeks and Jews. The more colourful peddlers were those that doubled as performers, healers, or fortune-tellers.
Historically, peddlers used a variety of different transport modes: they travelled by foot, carrying their wares; by means of a person or animal-drawn cart or wagon or used improvised carrying devices. Abram Goodman, who took to peddling in the US in the 1840s, reports that he travelled by foot, used a sleigh when roads were snowbound and also travelled, with his pack, by boat when traversing longer distances.
As market towns flourished in medieval Europe, peddlers found a role operating on the fringes of the formal economy. They called directly on homes, delivering produce to the door thereby saving customers time travelling to markets or fairs. However, customers paid a higher price for this convenience. Some peddlers operated out of inns or taverns, where they often acted as an agent rather than a reseller. Peddlers played an important role providing services to geographically isolated districts, such as in the mountainous regions of Europe, thereby linking these districts with wider trading routes.
A sixteenth century commentator wrote of the
By the eighteenth century, some peddlers worked for industrial producers, where they acted as a type of travelling sales representative. In England, these peddlers were known as “Manchester men.” Employed by a factory or entrepreneur, they sold goods from shop to shop rather than door to door and were thus operating as a type of wholesaler or distribution intermediary. They were the precursors to the modern sales representative.
In the United States, there was an upsurge in the number of peddlers in the late 18th century and this may have peaked decades just before the American Civil War. Advances in industrial mass production and freight transportation as a result of the war laid the groundwork for the beginnings of modern retail and distribution networks, which gradually eroded much of the need for travelling salesmen. The rise of popular mail order catalogues (e.g. Montgomery Ward began in 1872) offered another way for people in rural or other remote areas to obtain items not readily available in local stores or markets. A relatively short-lived upsurge in the number of peddlers was witnessed in the period following the second World War, when the wartime manufacturing boom came to an abrupt end, and returning soldiers finding themselves unable to secure suitable work, turned to peddling which generally offered a decent income.
In the United States, the travelling salesman became a stock character in countless jokes. Such jokes are typically bawdy, and usually feature small town rubes, farmers and other country folk, and frequently another stock character, the farmer's daughter.
In the modern economy a new breed of peddler, generally encouraged to dress respectably to inspire confidence with the general public, has been sent into the field as an aggressive form of direct marketing by companies pushing their specific products, sometimes to help launch novelties, sometimes on a permanent basis. In a few cases this has even been used as the core of a business.
Very few peddlers left written records. Many were illiterate and diaries are rare. Most peddlers handled cash transactions leaving behind few or no accounting records such as receipts, invoices or day- books. However, a very small number of peddlers kept diaries and these can be used to provide an insight into the daily life of a peddler. Ephraim Lisitzky(1885-1962), an immigrant from Russsia arrived in the US in 1900 and took up peddling for a brief period folloiwng his arrival. His autobiography, published in 1959 under the title, In the Grip of the Cross-Currents, describes his various encounters with householders and the difficulties he experienced making a sale as door after door was slammed in his face.
After arriving in America in 1842, Abram Vossen Goodman also maintained a diary of his experiences and that diary has been published by the American Jewish Archives. Extracts from the diary detail his experiences and thoughts about the life of a peddler. When, Goodman's initial attempts to find employment as a clerk were unsuccessful, on September 29th, he wrote, "I had to do as all the others; with a bundle on my back I had to go out into the country, peddling various articles." (p. 95) In the first few weeks, he found the lifestyle onerous, uncertain and solitary.
Today, peddlers continue to travel by foot, but also use bicycle, hand-held carts, horse-drawn carts or drays and motorized vehicles such as motor-bikes as transport modes. To carry their wares, peddlers use purpose-built back-packs, barrows, hand-carts or improvised carrying baskets. Rickshaw peddlers are a relatively common sight across Asia.
A number of countries have enacted laws to protect the rights of peddlers, and also to protect the public from the sale of inferior goods. In many states of the USA, peddlers are required to apply for a license. India has special laws enacted, by the efforts of planners which give mongers higher rights as compared to other businessmen. For example, mongers have a right of way over motorized vehicles.
In Britain, peddling is still governed by the Pedlars Act of 1871, which provides for a "pedlar's certificate". Application is usually made to the police. In the late 20th century, the use of such certificates became rare as other civic legislation including the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 and the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 for England & Wales introduced a street trader's licence. As of 2008 the pedlar's certificates remain legal and in use, although several local councils have sought to rid their area of peddlers by way of local bylaw or enforcement mechanisms such as making them apply for a street trader's licence.
Literal compounds formed from these synonyms are:
Metaphoric compounds, since the 16th century mostly pejorative, formed from these synonyms are:
Names, most archaic, of product- or industry-specific types of peddlers include:
Names, some pejorative, of other sub- or supertypes or close relatives of peddlers include:
Individual peddlers (of myth and history)
Although there are basic similarities between the activities in the Old World and the New World there are also significant differences. In Britain the word was more specific to an individual selling small items of household goods from door to door. It was not usually applied to Gypsies.
The Cheap Jack stereotype appears often in 19th century literature. The most famous example is probably Charles Dickens' ‟Doctor Marigold‟. A short story it was originally written for one of his Christmas editions of All the Year Round. In collected editions of Dickens' works, it appears in the volume ‟Christmas Stories‟.
The Tin Men (1987), a feature film directed by Barry Levison and starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny De Vito, is a comedy set in 1963, concerning two aluminium salesmen and the dirty tricks they use to make a sale as they try to out-compete each other.
Korobeiniki is a Russian folk song that describes a meeting between a peddler and a girl. Their haggling is a metaphor for their courtship. Robin Hood and the Peddler is an American ballad that now forms part of the collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
St Patrick and the Peddler by Margaret Hodges is a novel about a peddler who is visited by St Patrick in his dreams and through a circuitous route uncovers great riches.
The Lady and the Peddler, (1947) is an American play by Yosefa Even Shoshan and adapated from a story by S.Y. Agnon. The plot concerns a Jewish peddler who takes up residence with a mysterious gentile woman. Residing in a forest setting, the situation is idyllic for the travelling salesman, as the woman provides for all his needs and never asks for anything in return. Soon, however, he comes to realise that the woman is an evil spirit in disguise. The story is thought to be a metaphor for the dislocation and destruction of European Jews.
Peddlers have been the subject of numerous paintings, sketches and watercolours in both Western art and in the Orient, where they depict familiar scenes of every day life. The Peddlar by Hieronymous Bosch is perhaps the most icononic image of a peddler. Painted in about 1500, the peddler in this painting wears a costume almost identical to thieves in other Bosch paintings. The 12th century Chinese artist, Su Hanchen made several paintings of peddlers as did one of his contemporaries, Li Song, both of whom painted the The Knickknack Peddler.
Bonnie Young has pointed out that the theme of the monkey and the peddler was relatively common in Medieval art across Europe. These scenes, which appear in books and on silverware, often depict bands of monkeys robbing the peddler while he sleeps. Such images may have been popular in medieval society, because the peddler shared many of the same vices as a monkey; he was seen as a "a showman, a bit of a trickster and not always acquiring his wares by honest means and plying them without too much regard for the quality of the merchandise."
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