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PEDDLERS. Also known as hawkers or chapmen, peddlers were itinerant merchants who roamed the country when its interior markets were still underdeveloped and extremely diffuse. Beginning in the colonial period, such men—frequently of New England origin—traveled from farm to farm with their trunks strapped on their backs or, as roads improved, in wagons. Trunk peddlers who sold smaller items like combs, pins, cheap jewelry, knives and woodenware, knitted goods, and books (Parson Mason Weems of Virginia, Washington's biographer, was an itinerant bookseller) usually tended to be "on their own hooks"—independent entrepreneurs who owned their stock. Most were willing to barter their wares in exchange for farm products from their cash-strapped and isolated rural customers (many early Indian fur traders were in this sense little more than peddlers), then carry those goods for resale at a cash profit in country stores and town markets.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century many peddlers, especially in the burgeoning tinware trade, were "staked" by small northern manufactories who paid them a percentage of sales, sometimes even a flat wage. The importance of these "Yankee peddling companies" as a primitive but effective distribution system for durable goods is demonstrated by the wooden shelf-clock industry

of early-nineteenth-century Connecticut. Mass production processes perfected by Eli Terry allowed thousands of clocks to be manufactured annually by a single workshop, increases that would have been of little use without the marketing prowess of the Yankee peddler to transport, explain, and sell (often "on time") the luxury items. The folklore surrounding the fictional Sam Slick attests to the ubiquity of the antebellum clock peddler; by the 1840s one traveler to the frontier South remarked that "in every cabin where there was not a chair to sit on there was sure to be a Connecticut clock."

The character of Sam Slick also underscores the outsider status of the Yankee peddler (who began to be supplanted in the late 1830s by large numbers of German Jewish emigrants), which made them targets of suspicion and hostility, especially in the South. Men resented peddlers' intrusions into the household (particularly seductive sales pitches directed to their wives); established merchants complained about the threat peddlers ostensibly presented to local trade. Fears of abolitionist-fueled slave insurrections led to widespread attempts to regulate "foreign" itinerant merchants through onerous licensing fees in the 1830s, although such legislation had antecedents in the colonial era.

Anti-peddler laws were also promulgated in many northern states during the mid-nineteenth century, and such legislation—along with the rise of wholesale distribution networks (and, later in the century, corporate "traveling salesmen")—led to the decline of rural peddling in the North by the Civil War. But peddling persisted well into the twentieth century in pockets of the rural South, notably under the auspices of the W. T. Rawleigh Company and the J. R. Watkins Medical Company. Peddlers who sold goods, such as furniture, on installment credit also remained common in the immigrant communities of northern cities through the 1920s.


Jaffee, David. "Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760–1860." Journal of American History 78, no. 2 (September 1991): 511–535.

Jones, Lu Ann. "Gender, Race, and Itinerant Commerce in the Rural New South." Journal of Southern History 66, no. 2 (May 2000): 297–320.

Rainer, Joseph T. "The Honorable Fraternity of Moving Merchants: Yankee Peddlers in the Old South, 1800–1860." (Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 2000.)

Scott P.Marler

See alsoClock and Watch Industry ; Colonial Commerce .

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