New Worlds: Come Buy, Come Buy

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Writing this essay has earwormed me.

I own an album of period music by the group Sirinu, which includes the song “New Oysters Street Cries.” It’s a seventeenth-century round advertising oysters for sale:

New oysters!
New oysters!
New Walefleet oysters!
At a groat a peck
At a groat a peck
Each oyster worth two pence
Fetch us bread and wine that we may eat,
Let us lose no time with such good meat,
A banquet for a prince!

I hear a non-musical version of this type of thing every time I go to my farmers’ market. One of the men at a particular berry stall is constantly calling out advertisements for their produce: “Delicious, delicious, they’re healthy and nutritious! Fresh and sweet, better than a candy treat! Try before you buy, and don’t be shy!” Every so often someone else at the market will try to imitate him, but none of them really have the guts to commit the way he does, so it always winds up sounding half-hearted and weak.

Cries of this sort could be very common, though, in the days of street selling. Especially when the population isn’t very literate, written ads won’t do you much good; you need images and speech (or better yet, music) to get people’s attention. If you’re operating at a market, advertising cries might draw people to your stall instead of another one with similar products on offer, or entice them into buying something they’ve forgotten or maybe don’t really need. And they are absolutely vital for wandering street sellers, who can’t rely on customers being able to find them in a set spot.

Practically anything can be sold this way, but there are several categories that seem to be particularly susceptible to it. The first is products which are so ephemeral, they’ll stop being worth much in a few hours. Newspapers are a prime example: while those can be sold from newsstands or busy corners, it used to also be lucrative for kids to buy a stack and roam the streets, hawking the latest headlines to passers-by. Baked goods, fish, and other kinds of highly perishable food also get sold this way, often out of wheelbarrows or handcarts; if you’ve heard the term “costermonger,” that’s what it refers to. (The specific etymology used to refer to apples, a.k.a. costards, but it got generalized to all kinds of products later.)

Another category is small, lightweight items that might not really justify an entire market stall or shop. Ribbon-sellers, for example, can tie their wares to a branched stick and wander up and down the streets; same with people selling cheap religious amulets. Most of these things won’t bring in much money — if they were worth a lot, you’d have to worry about being mugged and your stock being stolen — but in a society without child labor laws and mandatory schooling, they’re a useful way for children in particular to earn a few extra coins to keep the family afloat.

Finally, it’s a useful way to sell things that are a significant pain for your customers to go fetch on their own. In a village people may go to the local well themselves, but in a city that lacks much in the way of water pipes, visiting the nearest source of clean water might be a significant undertaking. A strong individual can fill a cask and carry it on their back, dispensing clean water to households in a given neighborhood; alternatively, a cart might carry a much larger barrel. The same is approach is used for fresh milk, or even for things like coffee and hot tea — yes, people rig up portable heating elements and dispense those beverages to customers who can’t easily pop a kettle on the stove (either because they’re working, or because their lodgings don’t have a hearth). If you think of food and drink selling as being like an ambulatory type of vending machine, you won’t be far off.

The long-distance version of this type of trade looks a little different. Within a city, a given peddler will mostly be hawking one type of product, possibly swapping out for another one later in the day (e.g. selling fruit or flowers after the hot buns have all been snapped up). The same can be true of commerce between different villages or towns, especially for specialized products like medicine or books. But there’s also a more generalized type of peddler, who filled an important niche for isolated communities that couldn’t easily go to regular markets.

This is the stereotypical image of a guy on foot with a pack full of random easily portable goods. Pins and needles were popular, because those are vitally necessary and difficult to make, or ribbons and trinkets someone might buy as a treat for themself or a loved one. Other peddlers sold their services rather than products, as with cobblers repairing shoes or tinkers carrying portable forges to mend pots. Gossip was a great product as well, or pamphlets with news from the outside world. But ultimately, a peddler could be carrying pretty much anything he thinks he might find a buyer for.

I say “he” because this was a dangerous life, and as such, few women followed it. You had to be strong enough not only to carry your goods, but also to defend them against thieves. Laws often prevented peddlers from stopping anywhere for very long, and even the communities that relied on their services viewed them with suspicion: after all, an itinerant stranger could very easily be a thief himself, skipping town before anyone realized what he’d done . . . which made peddlers a useful scapegoat for the sins of a local. The fact that members of minority groups often wound up in this line of work didn’t help, either, as racism or religious bigotry layered on top of the suspicion of outsiders.

In the modern, industrialized world, this kind of commerce has all but vanished. In touristy areas you’ll see people hawking souvenirs on the sidewalk, and wares like illegal knock-offs of name brands can be bought from vendors ready to bolt the moment police show up, but even the more formalized approach of door-to-door sales is a rare exception now. Our governments want to be able to tax and regulate business, which is easier when the business operates out of fixed premises, and the ubiquity of transportation means that obtaining everything is vastly simpler than it used to be. But according to an architectural history blog I read, the rapid disappearance of street sellers can also be traced in to a different, less expected factor: urban noise regulation.

Think back to the street cries I mentioned. Have you ever heard an ice cream cart or truck going by in your neighborhood, playing a little song to advertise its presence? Now imagine that multiplied by twenty, fifty, a hundred, with people selling all kinds of products in the street. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a drive to reduce that kind of noise, and so regulations pushed street sellers out of business. (Right when the noise from automobiles began rising enormously: let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony.) That isn’t the only factor which eliminated this mode of commerce, of course . . . but apparently it played a significant role.

In the wake of that, trade has largely been shuffled off into indoor stores. Where some of it has always been, of course — we’ll look at that next week!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Come Buy, Come Buy — 13 Comments

  1. The opening of the Elvis Presley classic Film, King Creole, in New Orleans French Quarter, in which he does a duet from his balcony with the crawfish vender with cart and mule in the street below — “CraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAWfeesh! Crawfish!” It’s really a stunning musical number.

    You also still hear them all around the old quarter in Havana — the songs are called pregones, as they are throughout Latin America and hispanic Caribbean.

  2. “Extra, Extra, read all about it!” The cry of the Newsies when newspapers were still sold in the street. Now it’s all on line and newspapers are a thing of the past as well as the boys who sold them.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Come Buy, Come Buy - Swan Tower

  4. And then there’s Mrs Lovett’s version; I recall reading somewhere that Sondheim was inspired by fishmongers at the docks. So… have a little priest…

  5. Pre-pandemic there was a person who ran a mobile knife-sharpening business who would drive around town in their van. Every time I heard the distinct, slow, ding—ding—ding of their bell, I couldn’t resist calling “Bring Outcher Dead!”

    Luckily we also always had the front windows closed so no-one else could hear…

    • I know of the opposite of that: a knife-sharpening business where you kinda have to know where to leave the knives, and then someone will tell you how much money, and it all sort of happens by ninja? Everyone who’s done it says they’re great, but wow the mystery.