- Historic Sites
Pack-road To Yesterday
What the old-time peddler meant in the development of the American frontier
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
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.