Pack-road To Yesterday


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.