As colonial settlement grew and the frontier was pushed westward, agricultural areas expanded faster than urban areas. For many people living on the frontier, and even for those in more established regions, markets, urban shops, and country stores were not always close by. Peddlers, often called hawkers or chapmen, brought sought-after wares to settlers’ doorsteps and played an important role in colonial economic and social development, especially in New England.
While colonial farmers have often been portrayed as living within a subsistence economy, their survival was, in fact, tied to a market economy. The long distances between most frontier homes and a market, however, meant that farmers were not willing to make the difficult, time-consuming journey when they needed only a few items.
Peddlers, with their traveling stores, were a welcome sight for those living in more isolated areas, as they provided easy access to necessary goods. Most peddlers did not deal in large items, because their horses and wagons could carry only a limited weight. Instead, they hawked such smaller products as books (including chapbooks, or small anthologies of writings, hence the name chapman), combs, buttons, needles, kitchen implements, and medicines. The peddler also brought with him news and gossip, and he provided fresh company to lonely frontier families.
While peddlers served an important economic and social role, they were also generally disliked. Although consumers welcomed the opportunity presented by the peddlers, they resented having to pay a higher price for the goods because of the convenience of the system. Many local merchants used this argument against peddlers; they also contended that these itinerant salesmen sold inferior goods, although many peddlers obtained their goods from the same merchants who openly criticized them. For the owners of urban and country stores, peddlers were competitors, who forestalled isolated farmers and their families from coming to their stores, where these shoppers usually made large purchases.
Other negative stereotypes of peddlers included connecting them to criminal networks, and many goods hawked by peddlers were assumed to be stolen. Other peddlers were accused of purchasing their goods on credit but never returning to pay for them. These issues including competition, crime, and debt caused most colonies to regulate peddlers’ activities. A South Carolina law of 1737 ordered that each peddler needed to be licensed to legally practice his trade. In 1765, Connecticut passed a law that required each peddler to pay an annual fee of 20 pounds. In 1767, New York outlawed peddlers and established a fine of 5 pounds for anyone caught hawking goods; this decision was later reversed, when it became clear that peddlers served an important role. After the return of peddlers to New York, it was decided to create a licensing system with a fee of 8 pounds per horse and a fee of 5 pounds per wagon or sledge.
Peddlers played a vital economic and social role by supplying needed goods to remote areas and like these hawkers of tea water more specialized commodities in urban areas. In either case, peddlers also facilitated the exchange of news and gossip. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Colonial peddlers have not received the same amount of historical attention as larger urban-based merchants. Yet by moving within the ever-changing boundaries of settlement and connecting the settlers of these regions with the larger market economy, they played a vital role in colonial expansion and in the continued growth and development of the American economy. Ty M. Reese See also: Merchants; Trade. Bibliography Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 17431776. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955. McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 16071789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Photo Gallery Peddlers