Pack-road To Yesterday

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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.