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A Peking costermonger selling fruit in about 1869
Cherry peddler in Bucharest, 1869

A peddler, in British English pedlar, also known as a canvasser, chapman, cheapjack, hawker, higler, huckster, monger, or solicitor, is a traveling vendor of goods. In England, the term was mostly used for travellers hawking goods in the countryside to small towns and villages; they might also be called tinkers or gypsies. In London more specific terms were used, such as costermonger.

Peddlers have a long and colourful history. From antiquity, peddlers filled the gaps in the formal market economy by providing consumers with the convenience of door-to-door service. They operated alongside town markets and fairs where they often purchased surplus stocks which were subsequently resold to consumers. Peddlers were able to distribute goods to the more geographically isolated communities such as those who lived in mountainous regions of Europe and consumers who found it difficult to attend town markets. Thus, peddlers played an important role in linking these consumers and regions to wider trade routes. Some peddlers worked as agents or travelling salesmen for larger manufacturers, thus were the precursor to the modern travelling salesman.

In Europe, suspicions of dishonest or petty criminal activity was long associated with peddlers and travellers.[1][2] Regulations to discourage small-scale retailing by hawkers and peddlers, promulgated by English authorities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and reinforced by the Church, did much to encourage negative attitudes towards peddlers. From the 16th century, peddlers were often associated with negative connotations - attitudes which persisted until well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The origin of the word, known in English since 1225, is unknown, but is possibly an Anglicised version of the French pied, Latin pes, pedis "foot", referring to a petty trader travelling on foot.


Biblical illustration of an Arab Fair. The peddlers open their packages of tempting fabrics; the jeweler is there with his trinkets; the tailor with his ready-made garments; the shoe-maker with his stock, from rough, hairy sandals to yellow and red morocco boots; the farrier is there with his tools,nails, and flat iron shoes, and drives a prosperous business for a few hours; and so does the saddler, with his coarsesacks and his gayly-trimmed cloths.

Peddlers have been known since antiquity and possibly earlier. In the Greco-Roman world, open-air markets served urban customers, while peddlers filled in the gaps in distribution by selling to rural or geographically distant customers. [3] According to marketing historian, Eric Shaw, the peddler is "perhaps the only substantiated type of retail marketing practice that evolved from Neolithic times to the present." [4] The political philosopher, John Stuart Mill wrote that "even before the resources of society permitted the establishment of shops, the supply of [consumer] wants fell universally into the hands of itinerant dealers, the pedlars who might appear once a month, being preferred to the fair, which only returned once a year." [5]

Biblical references to the terms, peddler or huckster, are relatively frequent, attesting to the antiquity of the concept. The term 'peddler' was often used to describe those who spread the word of God. The book of Corinthians, for instance, has the following phrase, "For we are not as so many, peddling the word of God." (Corinthians 2:17). The term, 'huckster' appears more frequently in the King James version of the Bible and for the main part, it appears that it carried perjorative connotations, possibly arising from the widespread practice of adulterating foods and short-changing on weights and measures. The Apocrypha, for example, has the following, "A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong ; and an huckster shall not be freed from sin" (Ecclesiasticus 26:29).

Tibet people's peddler (Nepal).

In some economies the work of itinerant selling was left to nomadic minorities, such as Gypsies, travellers, or Yeniche who offered a varied assortment of goods and services, both evergreens and (notoriously suspicious) novelties. Peddlers sometimes doubled as performers, healers, or fortune-tellers. [6]

Belgian milk peddlers, c. 1890-1900.

Historically, peddlers travelled on foot, carrying their wares, or by means of a person- or animal-drawn cart or wagon. Peddlers were known by a variety of names throughout the ages, including Arabber, hawker, costermonger (English), chapman (medieval English), huckster, itinerant vendor or street vendor. Typically, peddlers operated door-to-door, plied the streets or stationed themselves at the fringes of formal trade venues such as open air markets or fairs.

As market towns flourished in medieval Europe, peddlers found a role operating on the fringes of the formal economy. They called directly on homes, delivering produce to the door thereby saving customers time travelling to markets or fairs. However, customers paied a higher price for this convenience. Some peddlers operated out of inns or taverns, where they often acted as an agent rather than a reseller. Peddlers played an important role providing services to geographically isolated districts, such as in the mountainous regions of Europe, thereby linking these districts with wider trading routes.[7]

A sixteenth century commentator wrote of the

“many pedlars and chapmen, that from fair to fair, from markett to markett, carieth it to sell in horspakks and fote pakks, in basketts and budgelts, sitting on holydays and sondais in chirche porchis and abbeys dayly to sell all such trifells.” [8]

By the eighteenth century, some peddlers worked for industrial producers, where they acted as a type of travelling sales representative. In England, these peddlers were known as “Manchester men.” Employed by a factory or entrepreneur, they sold goods from shop to shop rather than door to door and were thus operating as a type of wholesaler.[9] They were the precursors to the modern sales representative.

In the United States, the era of the traveling peddler probably peaked in the decades just before the American Civil War. The large advances in industrial mass production and freight transportation as a result of the war laid the groundwork for the beginnings of modern retail and distribution networks. Further, the rise of popular mail order catalogues (e.g. Montgomery Ward began in 1872) offered another way for people in rural or other remote areas to obtain items not readily available in local stores.[citation needed]

In the United States, the travelling salesman became a stock character in countless jokes. Such jokes are typically bawdy, and usually feature small town rubes, farmers and other country folk, and frequently another stock character, the farmer's daughter.

India has special laws enacted, by the efforts of planners which give mongers higher rights as compared to other businessmen. For example, mongers have a right of way over motorized vehicles.

In the modern economy a new breed of peddler, generally encouraged to dress respectably to inspire confidence with the general public, has been sent into the field as an aggressive form of direct marketing by companies pushing their specific products, sometimes to help launch novelties, sometimes on a permanent basis. In a few cases this has even been used as the core of a business.

The life of a peddler[edit]

Very few peddlers left written records. Many were illiterate and diaries are rare. [10] Most peddlers handled cash transactions leaving behind few or no accounting records such as receipts, invoices or day- books. However, a very small number of peddlers kept diaries and these can be used to provide an insight into the daily life of a peddler.

After arriving in America in 1842, Abram Vossen Goodman maintained a diary of his experiences and that diary has been published by the American Jewish Archives.[11] Extracts from the diary detail his experiences and thoughts about the life of a peddler. When, Goodman's initial attempts to find employment as a clerk were unsuccessful, on September 29th, he wrote, "I had to do as all the others; with a bundle on my back I had to go out into the country, peddling various articles." (p. 95) In the first few weeks, he found the lifestyle onerous, uncertain and solitary.

"Can a man, in fact, be said to be "living" as he plods through the vast, remote country, uncertain even as to which farmer will provide him shelter for the coming night? In such an existence the single man gets along far better than the father of a family. Such fools as are married not only suffer themselves, but bring suffering to their women. How must an educated woman feel when, after a brief stay at home, her supporter and shelterer leaves with his pack on his back, not knowing where he will find lodging on the next night or the night after?" (p.96)
"Last week in the vicinity of Plymouth I met two peddlers, Lehman and Marx. Marx knew me from Furth, and that night we stayed together at a farmer's house. After supper we started singing, and I sat at the fireplace, thinking of all my past and of my family." (p.100)
[By October,1842 Goodman is travelling with a brother] "Not far from [Lunenburg] we were forced to stop on Wednesday because of the heavy snow. We sought to spend the night with a cooper, a Mr. Spaulding, but his wife did not wish to take us in. She was afraid of strangers, she might not sleep well; we should go our way. And outside there raged the worst blizzard I have ever seen... After we had talked to this woman for half an hour, after repeatedly pointing out that to turn us forth into the blizzard would be sinful, we were allowed to stay." (p.101)
"On Monday morning, December 5th, we set out for Groton in a sleigh and at night stayed with an old farmer, about two miles from that place. It was a very satisfactory business day, and we took in about fifteen dollars... After spending Wednesday in Milford, we traveled beyond on Thursday and Friday, spending Saturday at Amherst and Sunday at the home of Mr. Kendall in Mount Vernon. Business, thanks be to God, is satisfactory, and this week we took in more than forty-five dollars. (p. 103)
"It is hard, very hard indeed, to make a living this way. Sweat runs down my body in great drops and my back seems to be breaking, but I cannot stop; I must go on and on, however far my way lies...Times are bad; everywhere there is no money. This increases the hardship of life so that I am sometimes tempted to return to New York and to start all over again. (pp 107-108)

Modes of transport[edit]

Today, peddlers continue to travel by foot, but also use bicycle, hand-held carts, horse-drawn carts or drays and motorized vehicles such as motor-bikes as transport modes. To carry their wares, peddlers use purpose-built back-packs, barrows, hand-carts or improvised carrying baskets. Rickshaw peddlers are a relatively common sight across Asia.

Legislation and regulation[edit]

In Britain, peddling is still governed by the Pedlars Act of 1871, which provides for a "pedlar's certificate". Application is usually made to the police. In the late 20th century, the use of such certificates became rare as other civic legislation including the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 and the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 for England & Wales introduced a street trader's licence. As of 2008 the pedlar's certificates remain legal and in use, although several local councils have sought to rid their area of peddlers by way of local bylaw or enforcement mechanisms such as making them apply for a street trader's licence.

Types and names[edit]

A typical door-to-door vendor in rural Zhangpu County, Fujian, China.
A peddler woman in Nishapur.

Literal compounds formed from these synonyms are:

Metaphoric compounds, since the 16th century mostly pejorative, formed from these synonyms are:

Names, most archaic, of product- or industry-specific types of peddlers include:

Names, some pejorative, of other sub- or supertypes or close relatives of peddlers include:

Individual peddlers (of myth and history)

Although there are basic similarities between the activities in the Old World and the New World there are also significant differences. In Britain the word was more specific to an individual selling small items of household goods from door to door. It was not usually applied to Gypsies.

  • Food traders were normally badgers
  • Sellers of chapbooks were chapmen; compare the term Stationer which described a bookseller (usually near a university) whose shop was fixed and permanent.
Sbitenshchik and Khodebshchik, a "lubok print" (19th century).
  • In Russia a Khodebshchik (Russian: ходебщик) was a person carrying a billboard advertising a product or service, a street hawker or peddler of wares, or house-to-house salesman in the 16th–19th centuries.

In literature[edit]

The Cheap Jack type appears often in 19th century literature. The most famous example is probably Charles Dickens' ‟Doctor Marigold‟. A short story it was originally written for one of his Christmas editions of 'All the Year Round'. In collected editions of Dickens' works, it appears in the volume ‟Christmas Stories‟.


  1. ^ Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor. Researched and written, variously, with J. Binny, B. Hemyng and A. Halliday.
  2. ^ Chesney, K., The Victorian Underworld, Penguin, 1970. Recounts criminal and quasi-criminal activity in countryside and city.
  3. ^ Braudel, F. and Reynold, S., The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th to 18th Century, Berkely, CA, University of California Press, 1992
  4. ^ Shaw, E. H. "Ancient and medieval marketing" in Jones, D.G. Brian and Tadajewski, Mark, The Routledge Companion to Marketing History, London, Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 9781134688685
  5. ^ Mill, J.S., Principles of a Political Economy, London, Longman, 1909, Bk.I,Ch.II
  6. ^ Diner, H., "German Jews and Peddling in America." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman, German Historical Institute, 2014, <Online:>
  7. ^ Casson, M. and Lee, J., "The Origin and Development of Markets: A Business History Perspective," Business History Review, Vol 85, Spring, 2011, doi:10.1017/S0007680511000018, pp 31-32
  8. ^ Tudor Documents cited in Casson, M. and Lee, J., "The Origin and Development of Markets: A Business History Perspective," Business History Review, Vol 85, Spring, 2011, doi:10.1017/S0007680511000018, p. 32
  9. ^ Casson, M. and Lee, J., "The Origin and Development of Markets: A Business History Perspective," Business History Review, Vol 85, Spring, 2011, doi:10.1017/S0007680511000018, p. 33
  10. ^ Brown, D., The Autobiography of a Pedlar: John Lomas of Hollinsclough, Staffordshire (1747-1823), Midland History, 1996
  11. ^ Goodman, A.V., A Jewish Peddler's Diary: ABRAM VOSSEN GOODMAN, 1842-43, American Jewish Archives, <Online:>


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Dolan, J.R. (1964), Yankee Peddlers of Early America.
  • Spufford, M. (1981), Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readership in seventeenth Century England.
  • Spufford, M. (1984), The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century.
  • Wright, R.L. (1927), Hawkers and Walkers in Early America.
  • Station Chief at
  • Peddler at

Further reading[edit]

Brown, D., The Autobiography of a Pedlar: John Lomas of Hollinsclough, Staffordshire (1747-1823), Midland History, 1996