Yankee Peddlers

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Up to the end of the Civil War, settlers who lived away from the coast had to depend on complicated and slow means to access the goods and services they needed or desired. From the first, a successful farm had to get some or all of its produce to market in order to have the income necessary to buy these things and get specialized help. However, roads were often only tracks and turnpikes were expensive to use. Canals, after the mid-1820s, provided slow but cheaper transport than that on land.

Store owners in the larger centers tended to go once a year into what few major cities that existed and buy all their stock in one trip. Some services existed locally, but the time and expense of traveling through the forest or farmland meant that much valuable time was wasted. People tended to ‘make-do’.

Part of the need for goods and services from 1620 on for a good 250 years was met by traveling peddlers, either of goods or services. Before the Revolution, peddlers (derived from the French ‘pied’, or foot, suggesting the practice’s medieval origins) sold items of mostly British manufacture, due to the restrictions London placed on local industry. Later, these were generally replaced by cheaper American manufactures. The quintessential peddler item of tinware, for instance, was manufactured in America first in Berlin CT in 1770 from tinplate imported by the sheet from Britain. A short time later, the revolution broke out and the products, which had begun to run afoul of British restrictions, were free to be sold. American state trade restrictions were finally banned in the 1787 Constitution and manufacturers were free to distribute their wares all across the continent.

The case of the tinware manufacturers may represent that of a number of other businesses, most of which were located in New England. They hired young men to peddle their products across the different States. For the young men, this was the male equivalent of the ‘mill girls’, who moved to the mill towns and made money to help pay for the expenses of relatively unproductive family farms or to be saved as a dowry for marriage to a man leaving New England for the West. The male peddlers got a taste of adventure, they spied out promising parcels of land to buy or to advise relatives or members of their home communities to buy, or they found a lady-love in some farm or village and settled down as the local general store owner.

Generally, the peddlers were over 21, the age at which their obligations to and legal control by their fathers ceased. This legal framework was the basis for the family farm; as the children grew, they were put to work with chores that befit their age. The work of older teen-agers was critical as illness and injury sapped their father’s and mother’s strength.

The tinware manufacturers would load up the peddlers with as much of their products—pans, dishes, ‘silverware’ and the like—as they could carry and sent them on their was in search of customers. Most were on foot, as the paths to the farm doorways were just that—paths. Some had pack animals and some had wagons. As the roads improved, more and more peddlers were able to use these last two means.

These ‘Yankee peddlers’ spread out across the country, following circuits or routes to the west or south. Many, not unlike the rafters on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, would proceed in a direction until their stock was exhausted, then sell their wagons and/or animals and either walk back home or find their way to a port and take ship for home.

The tinware businesses soon learned that they could improve their revenues if they set up seasonal manufacturing branches in southern ports and shipped tin plate and skilled workers south to begin production. The company’s peddlers would then come to the port when they had sold what they had carried from New England, hand over their sales receipts and restock, heading back to New England, peddling the newly-made stock.

There were many more items that peddlers sold. Many of the smaller items, such as combs, needles, pins, patent medicine and the like, were called ‘Yankee notions’ by the settlers. Larger wagons might hold spinning wheels, clocks, clothes, shoes and iron plows.

Other peddlers sold services. Traveling tinkers, barrel-makers, dentists and local midwives provided services that the farm family could not do without. In a sense, even lawyers and judges could be included, as these would travel a ‘circuit’ together, representing local litigants and dispensing justice by going from town to town. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, honed his legal skills traveling on a circuit in Illinois.

Given that the average level of education of the peddlers was better than especially their Southern customers, there were opportunities for fraud. Selling wooden nutmegs or broken clocks was not that common, or the peddling trade would never have appealed to many customers, but it was practiced enough to give the ‘Yankees’ a reputation for sharp dealing and taking advantage of people’s trust. As the Civil War approached, the stereotype Yankee was derived from the peddler, much as the stereotype Southerner was portrayed as a wealthy and brutal slave-owner. There was some truth in the stereotypes, but not enough go cover everybody.

An added value of the peddler, again especially in the South, was as a purveyor of news and gossip. To a largely illiterate audience, his account of political and social goings-on was one of the few ways isolated farmers and Appalachian villages learned about the outside world. This function, while still important in the rural North, was supplemented by the existence of newspapers there. De Tocqueville noted, when visiting what is now Pontiac MI in 1831, that a settler in the forest even had a copy of a British paper, no doubt acquired from someone in neighboring Canada.

Peddlers never really died out after the Civil War. Their commercial descendants are found as associates of direct-selling companies. My sister has had a successful decade holding ‘trunk sales’ of fashionable clothing at the homes of upper middle-class women in various parts of the country.

Yet, the business changed as first New England lost its young people to the West and to the cities like Boston, New York, St. Louis and Cincinnati. They were largely replaced by German Jews, who migrated to America in the 1840s when their faith was threatened in the German States.


 

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