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Pack-road To Yesterday

May 2024
8min read

What the old-time peddler meant in the development of the American frontier

The sea and the deep broad bays and rivers sweeping far into the continent ottered the early American colonists their easiest and cheapest highroad for commerce and communications. There were literally tens of thousands of miles of shore line which could be reached handily by boat, yet because of some perverse streak in man’s nature it wasn’t long before a number of restless people packed their scanty possessions and struck out for the heavily wooded, hilly interior.

As these deflectors from the tidewater areas moved inward, cleared their land and established outposts of colonial civilization, they presented a challenging opportunity to other men whose minds were occupied with trade and commerce. Each farm, each gristmill, each nucleus of some future village had its constant need for a supply of worldly goods and its surplus of produce to offer to the seaboard. It was a market that couldn’t be ignored—and it wasn’t for very long. Thus it came about that a band of stout-legged men hoisted trunkloads of merchandise on their backs and trudged off into the pathless forests to trade with the people who had moved inland.

These were the peddlers. For the next two centuries they were to follow doggedly in the shadows of farwandering Americans as they raited down the Ohio and the Mississippi, trekked along the Wilderness Road and the Santa Fe Trail, and ultimately moved in on the Spaniards on the far side of the Rockies in California.

Considering the number of easier and more sedate ways there were to earn a living, one wonders why men chose to become peddlers. In almost every respect it was a dog’s life, knocking around the raw back country of America. When the peddlers went out on the road, they were quite literally on the road—afoot, sloshing through mud ankle-deep in winter, or scuffing up a cloud of dust in summer. They were snapped at by vicious dogs, shot at by Indians, nipped by frost, and pounced upon by hijackers. Many were stung by rattle-snakes, and all of them were feasted upon by fleas, gnats, mosquitoes, bedbugs, leeches, and other flying and crawling species of tormentors.

But despite all of these occupational hazards, there were many overriding reasons why so many men chose such a precarious profession. Adventure was one of them, and from all accounts they encountered enough of that. A chance to get about and travel was another; early Americans had a consuming curiosity about the make-up of their country, and for a man with a restless foot, peddling gave it plenty ol exercise.

But the main reason for “going peddling” was opportunity. Peddling required no experience and very little capital. A peddler could quickly enough learn his trade as he made his rounds, and for as little as twenty or thirty dollars in cash he could buy enough stock to set himself up in business. The market for the peddlers’ goods was rapidly expanding; many peddlers accumulated enough money alter several years to retire from traveling and settle down at home as merchants and traders.

Thousands of others spotted remote villages which they figured would some day become bustling centers of trade and transportation. To these places with a future the peddlers returned and sank their roots. Some opened stores and became prosperous merchants. Others became jobbers and wholesalers. In hundreds of American cities and towns—Albany, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Fargo, Albuquerque, Sacramento—firms begun long ago by peddlers are still in business.

The first of the Yankee peddlers carried a general line of housewares and notions. Pots and pans, axes, handmade nails, thread, buttons, scissors, and combs were fastest-selling items. Biggest profits were earned on such frivolities as bits of lace and ribbon and fancy cloth, mirrors, toilet waters, spices, tea, coffee, and nostrums.

There were limits, naturally, as to how much of a load of these things a man could carry or how much he could manage to stow upon his horse. Such weight and space limitations led some of the peddlers to become specialists in certain lines. Instead of loading up with a hodgepodge of general merchandise, the specialists handled spices only, or tinware, or herbs and medicines. In later years there were clock peddlers, furniture peddlers, sewing machine peddlers. There were even peddlers of wagons and carriages—men who hitched together a string of three or four vehicles and drove around until they found buyers for the new rigs.

There was no end to the peddlers’ ingenuity in finding customers. They tracked down the remotest farmhouse and loneliest cabin, and turned up at every fair or carnival. In the Deep South they paddled up and down the rivers and bayous in canoes and drew their customers from plantation mansions and shanties by blowing on a bugle or a conch shell. But mostly the peddlers walked, pacing oil the long lonely miles with their heavy loads on their backs and the dream of riches and the future easing their way.

The peddler’s trunk was a long, rallier narrow box usually made of tin. A strong peddler stalling out on a selling expedition carried two such trunks, one on each shoulder. The slowing ol merchandise in these Hunks was a major undertaking requiring great skill. Dishes and pans of varying size were nested. Into pots went buttons, pins, nails, and ribbons. Gingham and bright calicoes were wrapped around long-handled forks.

So packed, cadi u unk weighed up to fifty or sixty pounds. And. paradoxically, the more a peddler sold the heavier became his trunks, for, often as not, the buyers had only grain, honey, furs, and homemade woodenware to exehange for the peddler’s wares. These products, which often weighed more than those the peddler had sold, had to be carried back to his home base and sold to the merchants and wholesalers. How successfully the peddlers traded oil these country wares determined their ultimate profits.

There were compensations, however. Wherever the peddler called he was a welcome visitor. Housewives stopped their work, men came in from the fields, children gathered around, and the trunks were opened. There was no great hurry. Everybody wanted to see all the fascinating goods and hear even scrap of the latest news. And the peddler was in no hurry either, for he welcomed a chance to rest his road-weary legs, besides, if it was morning when the peddler arrived, he could usually drag out negotiations long enough to be asked to stay for the noonday meal, and if he arrived in the afternoon, there was a good chance of an imitation to stay over for supper and the night.

As roads improved some peddlers rode on horsehack, carrying their wares strapped to their horses. Others used wagons which were capable of tarrying lair-sized loads. These improvements in transportation increased the importance of the peddler in our early commerce, lie was able to go larther. carry more stock and take a greater volume of goods in trade or barter.

But the peddlers still had their troubles, as is attested to bv the following letter written by a peddler of bonnets (paper hats called Navarinos) to his supplier in western Massachusetts:

Tioga June 22nd 1830 NYK

Mr. Thomas Hurlbut Sir.

From Bainbridge I armed here today at 12 o’clock by driving 12 miles yesterday in the rain. In consequence of the heavy rains that have fallen in this country the past ten days the roads are tremendous bad they are so rutted that I have been obliged to fasten a roap to the top of my box and hold on. I have just met with a Dry Goods pedler who trades through all pans of Pennsylvania, he says the roads are much worse than they are here however I am not discouraged yet. my horses stand it well except they are galled a little by driveing yesterday and today in the rain & for Bonets I have founed no chance for any sales of consequence yet.

The Small Pox is spreading over this country, don’t send out another Pedler with so high a box. In haste yours

Rodney Hill

I am in good health.

By early March the farm families in New England were on the lookout for the man with the packs on his back. Long before his arrival they had carefully listed the wares they must have—a dozen buttons, a paper of pins (very expensive in those days), a new jackknife, two pewter mugs, six needles—and as an appendage to that list, of essentials there was a much longer list of the things they would like to have.

The meeting between the farm family and the peddler was a lively swapping session, with the peddler in much the stronger position to get the better of every transaction. First of all, the peddler was working in what was pretty much of a seller’s market. His offering included items which the family could not do without. Then, too, he was selling to people who understandably were eager to add the slightest luxuries to their meager possessions. People possessing so little as did the early colonists found it difficult to resist a jew’sharp for the children, a stick of candy, a bit of gay ribbon or of lace, or a pretty piece of chinaware to set on the bare mantel over the kitchen fireplace. Sales resistance was low—even among the most frugal peopl—and the country people were uninformed about goods and prices.

If a peddler held out for a 600 per cent markup for pepper, he would blandly explain that the price was high due to an obscure war at sea which had shut off imports from the Spice Islands. So, too. would he justify his exorbitant prices for other articles by fixing the blame somehow on the English king or the avarice of the merchants in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. His customers were in no position to dispute the pedler’s laments about the skyrocketing prices in the market places, and they paid through the nose for the goods they bought.

But when it came their turn to offer goods to the peddler in payment, the farm families invariably found that the market for such things as they had for sale was poor indeed. Honey was a drug on the market, according to the peddler; the merchants in town were not much interested that year in coonskins and beaver pelts or beautifully hand-carved chairs. If the peddler was to be believed, lie could resell such items at verv depressed prices, hardly more than it would cost him to transport the stuff back to town.

Very often a peddler who marked up an item by 1,000 per cent knew that this was unrealistic. He started high so that he could magnanimously come down to, say, about 500 per cent profit—a process of repricing which was an exhilarating experience both for the peddler and his customer. One of the most enduring myths in our colonial folklore is that the peddlers were guilty of foisting wooden nutmegs and sanded sugar upon unsuspecting housewives. There has never been any evidence uncovered to back up these tales of deliberate dishonesty, but there is evidence aplenty that the peddlers were masters of the art of deception and overpricing.

Unquestionably, a minority oL the peddlers were first-class bums and crooks. Their drunken brawls, bloody fights and shady deals were well publicized, and drew sharp blasts from newspaper editors. Many inns and taverns posted notices bluntly announcing that peddlers were unwelcome.

The spellbinders who peddled a nauseous brew of raw alcohol, roots, herbs, and branch water as a cureall for every ailment from ague to housemaid’s knee did their profession a disservice. And there are, in fact, no really new stories about the traveling man and the farmer’s daughter, for the same ribald stories told today were in currency soon after the first peddlers passed along the country lanes in staid old New England. In the South the peddlers were referred to as “those damn Yankees from Connecticut,” and throughout the land they were scorned by pious folks as ungodly ne’er-do-wells only a cut or two better than gypsies.

But for all the unsavory publicity generated by the few bad eggs among them, the peddlers served a useful purpose. Importers and small manufacturers depended upon them as an outlet for a large portion of their goods. Several million people relied on these wandering merchants to bring them the goods they needed, and to carry away the things they had produced. This army of walkers was a primitive and inefficient way of carrying on trade, but when the peddler’s trunks were opened up, and he began his persuasive sales pitch, one historian remarked that “wants dawned on the minds of the household that they had never known before.”

The peddler’s salesmanship and physical endurance kept alive the first stirrings of our industrial economy. He has gone now, but for two hundred years he was an important man among men engaged in important affairs.

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