"My traffic is sheets . . . . My father named me Autolycus; who being, as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles . . . and my revenue is the silly cheat" (The Winter's Tale, act 4, scene 2). This is how Shakespeare described the peddler, and this is the public perception. Yet this picture conceals the diverse nature of the world of peddling, ranging from the beggar to the plump merchant, encompassing elaborate networks as well as all kinds of paupers and dispossessed individuals, who sought to survive by traveling and selling fine goods and objects.
The elaborate networks which apparently existed in the fourteenth century consisted for the most part of people from the mountains and individuals from groups that were experienced in long-distance trade, such as Jews and Armenians. Asia and mainly from the Himalaya and the mountains in the south of China have produced similar commercial networks. These networks seemed to develop in two ways. First, relatives and in-laws opened stores and shops over a huge geographical area. The second stage involved a distribution system linked to this initial movement of people. Organized as part of a rigid hierarchical framework, it relied upon temporary movement of people and work from home. The Scots, for example, were merchants, peddlers, mercenaries, sailors, and craftsmen throughout northern Europe, and all these activities also helped to spread goods that were of doubtful legality. These first movements of people, which began in the second half of the fifteenth century, reached their peak between 1500 and 1650.
The top rung of merchant peddlers were those who traded over extensive areas. For example, the Brentano family, originally from the Lake Como valley area, took four generations to establish their network. The first arrived in the sixteenth century as simple peddlers, traveling each year between the towns, fairs, and weekly markets of southern Germany offering spices, oranges, and lemons, until they managed to open shops in towns at the end of the seventeenth century. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Brentanos had managed to establish themselves in every major town in northern Europe, from the Baltic to the Alps. Success stories such as these relied upon certain common characteristics. The businesses expanded around a system of family finance, allowing the maximum use of their available means because everyone involved with the company invested most of his inheritance. Marriage only within certain limits was intended to protect the financial arrangement and the loyalty of each individual to family affairs. Exceptions to this rule—and there were many in Germany and Spain during certain periods—can be explained by the adaptation which immigrants were obliged to make in order to penetrate the market of the countries in which they had settled. These familial networks were organized as family businesses that were extremely flexible, coalescing and separating according to the requirements of business, of death, and of the increase in wealth or hardship of members of the group.
These small business networks were not specialized: merchants and peddlers did business in anything, according to what needs existed and opportunities arose, and often each family had a specialty of some kind based upon the general specialization of the region from which they had come—the South Tyrol in carpets, Lake Como in citrus fruits, and Haut Dauphiné in gloves. Three factors encouraged them to offer a diverse range of goods: the desire to acquire a larger number of customers by offering a large variety of products; means of payment, in which barter played an important part; and a quest for new or illicit items which would bring in greater profits. Traveling merchants also traded money, and a number of important companies and banks were started in this way, involving the balancing of income from sales to the less affluent and the loan of money to the wealthy. A final characteristic appears just beneath the surface in every aspect of the whole mercantile organization: men and goods moved and operated at the legal margins. The movement of goods around these circuits avoided customs and toll duties, and a proportion of these goods consisted purely and simply of contraband. When a new market opened up, particularly when war broke out, contraband and illicit stores proliferated.
The establishment of nation-states and the growth in the number of shops gradually destroyed these networks of merchants and traveling peddlers operating over enormous areas, forcing them to content themselves with regional circuits. However, the widespread development of urban trade in the eighteenth century forced shopkeepers to make use of peddlers to advance their own businesses, so the peddlers' activities persisted.
Three kinds of eighteenth-century peddlers can be identified, according to the assets they possessed as surety for good provided by city merchants. Firstly, there were peddlers who were unable to provide surety for the goods they requested; for them, the act of selling was more important than the goods. They wandered and traded on the basis of chance encounters, they tried all kinds of trade, they offered a show as well as goods, and they altered their routes according to where there was an opportunity. Secondly, there were the peddlers who had sufficient assets to secure loans, and regular suppliers and regular customers. They came and went according to the seasons. At first they got their supplies from émigrés who had opened shops, then they obtained their goods increasingly from other sedentary businesses. They generally had one or two fixed rounds, on a small scale, and they kept accounts. These records show that their customers bought on credit and paid back in small installments when the peddler made return visits, which always provided an excuse for new purchases. Finally, there were the merchant peddlers who, possessing substantial resources, traveled with a cart and set up shops. They went to fairs and markets and were welcome in castles and humble farmhouses. They could also provide books and unusual goods at the request of their customers. They sold to private individuals but they also provided new lines to shops (gloves, fans, watches).
Also common were those people excluded from the merchant circuit and all types of paupers—men and women—who tried to escape from poverty by selling goods or printed fabric. Local authorities often allowed them a monopoly on the sale of small printed fabrics.
From the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, peddling was gradually marginalized in commercial circles and discredited in the villages where it began. Only those specializing in new, luxury, or sought-after goods, or those who could invest in the new markets of Asia and America, were able to continue in the profession: opticians, florists, booksellers, and exporters of luxury goods and novelty items. The demise of peddling in Europe is characterized by the extremely diverse nature of the peddlers, illustrating their final efforts to adapt to the huge expansion of the new sales methods that had marginalized them: a proliferation of sales points, new distribution networks, the opening up of the countryside and, of course, the increase in mail order sales, which made them irrelevant. In Asia, the evolutions were not so abrupt.
Fontaine, Laurence. History of Pedlars in Europe, trans. Vicki Whittaker. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Spufford, Margaret. The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century. London: The Hambledon Press, 1984.