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Retailing “Yankee Notions”

Every inhabited part of the United States is visited by these men. I have seen them on the peninsula of Cape Cod and in the Neighborhood of Lake Erie, distant from each other more than six hundred miles. They make their way to Detroit, four hundred miles farther, to Canada, to Kentucky, and, if I mistake not, to New Orleans and St. Louis.

— Timothy Dwight, President of Yale, 1821

Up to the end of the Civil War, settlers who lived away from the coast had to depend on complicated and slow means to access the goods and services they needed or desired. From the first, a successful farm had to get some or all of its produce to market in order to have the income necessary to buy these things and get specialized help. Roads, however, were often only tracks, and turnpikes were expensive to use.

Store owners in the larger centers tended to go once a year into what few major cities existed and buy all their stock in one trip. Some services existed locally, but the time and expense of traveling through forest or farmland meant that much valuable time was wasted. People tended to “make do.”

Part of the need for goods and services from 1620 onward for the next 250 years was met by traveling peddlers, either of goods or services. Before the Revolution, peddlers (derived from the French pied, or foot, suggesting the practice’s medieval origins) sold items of mostly British manufacture, due to the restrictions London placed on local industry Later, these were generally replaced by cheaper American manufactures. 

The quintessential peddler item of tinware, for instance, was first manufactured in America in Berlin, Connecticut, in 1770 from tinplate imported by the sheet from Britain. A short time later, the Revolution broke out, and products that had run afoul of British restrictions were free to be sold. American state trade restrictions were finally banned in the Constitution and manufacturers were free to distribute their wares all across the country.

The case of the tinware manufacturers might represent that of a number of other businesses, most of which were located in New England. They hired young men to peddle their products across the different states These were the male equivalents of the “mill girls” who moved to the mill towns for money to help pay the expenses of relatively unproductive family farms or to save as a dowry for marriage. 

The peddlers spied out promising parcels of land to buy or advised relatives or members of their home communities to buy or they found a lady love at some farm or village and settled down as the local general store owner For example, “[Dexter] Knowlton left the old family farm in the hills of Chautauqua County, New York, for a peddling trip to the western prairies. At Freeport, Illinois, [on today’s US 20], he exchanged his pack for the counter, ruler and slate of the sedentary merchant. Within a few years, he owned a private bank, as well as a store, and sat as a director of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad.

Generally, the peddlers were over 21, the age of ‘majority, when their obligations to and legal control by their fathers ceased. This legal framework was the basis for the family farm; for, as the children grew, they were put to work with chores that befit their age. The work of older teenagers was critical, as illness and injury often sapped their fathers’ and mothers’ strength. 

The tinware manufacturers, for example, would load up the peddlers with as much of their products—pans, dishes, “silverware and the like as they could carry, and sent them on their way in search of customers. Most went on foot, as the paths to the farm doorways were just that: paths. Some had pack animals and some had wagons. As the roads improved, more and more peddlers were able to use these last two means.

Many of these men were contract employees, not independents who bought their own wares for resale. These “Yankee peddlers” then spread out across the country, following circuits or routes to the west or south. Many, not unlike the rafters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, would proceed in a direction until their stock was exhausted, then sell their wagons and/or animals and either walk home or find their way to a port and take ship for home.

One of the problems peddlers often faced was the settler family’s lack of ‘cash money’. Some ingenuity was often required to get around it. Barter was a common practice, and less common, though done on occasion, was the practice of issuing promissory notes to the peddler, who could then sell them at a discount for cash to local town bankers and speculators. 

Peddlers sold many more items besides tinware. Many of the smaller items, such as combs, needles, pins, patent medicine and the like, were called “Yankee notions” by the settlers.  Larger wagons might hold spinning wheels, clocks, clothes, shoes, and iron plows, but the mobility of such peddlers depended upon better roads than existed on the early frontier. Providing access to peddlers was a major factor inducing road improvements as the frontier became more settled.

Other peddlers sold services. Traveling tinkers, barrel makers, dentists, and local midwives provided services that the farm family could not do without. In a sense, even lawyers and judges could be included, as these would travel a “circuit” together, representing local litigants and dispensing justice by going from town to town, arguing cases. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, honed his legal skills traveling on a circuit in Illinois, along with the circuit judge and the opposing lawyer. The two lawyers would have to work out who represented the plaintiff and the defendant and argue their respective sides in front of the judge. On the road, they would dine and sleep together at a village inn, often sleeping two or three to a bed. 

Given that the average level of education of the peddlers was better than their customers, especially in the South, there were opportunities for fraud. Selling wooden nutmegs or broken clocks was not that common, or the peddling trade would never have appealed to many customers. Fraud was practiced often enough, though, to give the “Yankees” a reputation for cleverness and taking advantage of people’s trust. 

An added value of the peddler, again especially in the South, was as a purveyor of news and gossip. To a largely illiterate audience, his account of political and social goings-on was one of the few ways isolated farmers and Appalachian villages learned about the outside world. This function, while still important in the rural North then, was supplemented by the distribution of newspapers there. De Tocqueville noted, when visiting what is now Pontiac, Michigan in 1831, that a settler in the forest even had a copy of a British paper, no doubt acquired from someone in neighboring Canada.

The stereotypical “sharp” Yankee peddler was partially the concoction of local merchants. They resented the peddlers’ direct-to-your-door approach, the competition that forced down prices, and the peddlers’ more interesting products. Towns and villages attempted to prohibit peddlers from entering; States entertained the idea of punishing fees for licenses, but the reception of peddlers by the settlers and the demand for their wares and services supported their activity.

Peddlers never really died out after the Civil War, even though urbanization, railroads, and better roads enabled people to visit local stores or order from mail-order houses. Their commercial descendants are found as associates of direct-selling companies.

 “Avon Ladies” and “Fuller Brush” salesmen might have died out or declined since the 1950s, but peddlers continue to ply an honorable time-old occupation. My sister once had a successful decade as a kind of ‘peddler’, holding “trunk sales” of fashionable clothing at the homes of upper and middle-class women in various parts of the country. 

The above blog is extracted from Jim McNiven’s work on volume 3 of his book, The Yankee Road. Travel America’s longest highway – US 20 – which author Jim McNiven nicknames The Yankee Road. Meet some of the men and women whose ideas created modern America. Part history, part road book, part travelogue, volume 3 of The Yankee Road trilogy will be released early 2022. Visit The Yankee Road to learn more.