Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on May 30, 1976 · Page 74
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 74

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 30, 1976
Page 74
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Page 74 article text (OCR)

The Colonial Frontier Peddler By Theltna Humphrey The industrial and social history . of America would be dull indeed without the peddlerand the part he played in that history. We have had a tendency to scorn the peddler as a tramp who was living "off the fat of the land" with his trinkets and his "gift of gab." Modern research has revealed an entirely different story about the peddler and his life. The Yankee peddler was the first frontiersman to explore the undeveloped areas of early America. With his pack on his back, and his own two feet as his only means of transportation, the peddler became the first American traveling salesman. . In colonial days, Boston, the center of commerce, was the birthplace of the peddler. It was possible that a dozen or more ships, loaded with merchandise reached Boston harbor daily. The crew members of these ships provided the peddler with pins, needles, buttons, combs, and other small items of merchandise to sell to customers on his routes. The peddler, anxious to get items to sell, had to wrangle with the sailors about the cost of goods brought back to the colonies from Europe and the West Indies. Thus, Yankee ingenuity. asserted itself early in American business and trading activities. Despite restrictive trade policies with England and unstable currency, by 1700 the peddler was traveling throughout the New England colonies and into the frontier areas of the West and South. Although wilderness trails and dm CHARLESTON. W.VA. footpaths that; .were made by animals .--. maiifly_ buffalo and deer, were accessible, the peddler chose to use rafts and small boats: When his goods were more than he could carry on horseback, he would load a small raft to capacity with more than notions. Household wares made of tin and pewter were welcomed by frontier housewives. The rafts could also carry small barrels of rum imported from the West Indies and a few farm implements exported by British manufacturers . to the colonies. In many instances the entire raft of merchandise was sold to one customer for resale. A single merchant would buy "a whole raft of goods'- which was the beginning of the General Store that became an institution in frontier America. Thanks to the peddler, "to pole a raft" opened up new. business ventures for the growing nation and also developed canals and improved waterways throughout the expanding western frontier. · But the peddler had to assert his influence to get roads built for transporting the consumer products that were manufactured in the eastern states. The peddler got roads built. His gift of salesmanship along with his power of persuasion resulted in the opening of the first turnpike in 1785, which ran from Alexandria, Va., through the Shenandoah Valley. Maryland followed with a turnpike from Baltimore to Frederick. When the famous Philadelphia-Lancaster pike was completed, miles of travel adventure opened up for the peddler. In the late 18th century roads were opened through the Appalachian Mountains to connect the eastern seaboard with the Middle West. ' , Before 1820, there:was so much enthusiasm throughout the nation over the system of roads that the Federal Government built a "superhighway" from Cumberland, Md., to Wheeling, thus connecting the Potomac and Ohio rivers.: At the beginning of the lth century there were several important events that worked favorably for the peddler: the^nvention of : the cotton gin, the opening of more roads to the Middle West, and the War of 1912, which gave economic and commercial freedom to the United States. But the one single event that changed the life of the peddler was the development of the vehicles for: transporting goods -the wagon, the two-wheel cart, and the one-horse shay. All of these combined events initiated the American industrial Revolution. the day for the peddler had arrived. For one hundred years from 1790 to 1850 a covered wagon called the Conestoga was made available to the peddler. It was a large wagon that was used for overland hauling of heavy freight.This wagon pulled by four to six horses, was developed by Dutch and German settlers of Pennsylvania. Only the "iron horse" on rails could replace the Conestoga with boxcars and convert the peddler into a "drummer." The era of specialization had begun for the peddler. He could choose to sell heavy farm equip- ment, such as corn-sheilers, picks, pumps, shovels, and plows. For the home and especially for the housewife he could equip his wagon with racks and display yards of colorful cloth, or he could bring right to her parlor articles of furniture, such as ornamental tables, lamps, pitchers and bowls, tinware, and pewter designed by the silversmith. The peddler became.a "inissionary". who brought tile material necessities of life that helped early Americans through a difficult period of national growth. · - · · · · Did the peddler just stroll through life .with a welcome sign greeting him wherever he went? No. As early as 1728, there was a ban on peddling in Rhode Island. In some states the peddler was not even accepted by the former members of the "fraternity of peddlers" who had become merchants who resented the peddler's trespassing in their territory. Some states placed a tax on goods brought into the state; others required the peddler to buy a license to sell his merchandise. It is to be expected that the peddler would not always be welcomed in every community. If there were an "ax to grind", the peddler was often caught in the middle and felt the sharp edge. By many people he was considered a dishonest person who was often given the name of "swindler." This attitude helped to create a conflict between the peddler and his customer both of whom needed each other for economic, social, arid personal reasons. The growth of industry and commerce helped to bring respect and prestige to the peddler. He was welcomed by families who considered him a man from the outside world who brought news about government, politics, and social life in the more metropolitan areas of America. He was not a merchant prince neither was he considered a tramp. To the people in the remote areas he was more than a seller of merchandise. Even though.his visits were only once or twice a year, he was the connecting link between the simple life of farm and village and the progressive and growing cities. The Yankee peddler has established himself as an intricate -and vital factor in a growing nation's economic, industrial, and social life. In the 19th century, the social, professional, and religious life in America changed drastically. The new America needed more than material goods supplied by a peddler of the basic necessities of life. The frontier people wanted professional services and social activities for the .enjoyment of their new country. A new type of peddler met these needs. On horseback with his medicine bag attached to his saddle the peddler of pills; known as the "comforter of the sick", the faithful country doctor appeared on the rural roads, often accompanied by a tooth doctor or a midwife. In like manner circuitous lawyers helped the people settle their disputes and ; problems and established pur system of circuit courts and judges. New religious sects were springing up throughout the nation. Puritanism had drawn its last breath. Messages of heaven on earth were carried by itinerant preachers and evangelists to a free people seeking a new life in a new nation. And these free people needed to laugh and enjoy each other in community social activities. The touring circus, puppet shows, and roving minstrels helped hold the nation together as it faced one crisis after another. These free people also needed beauty in their lives. The wandering artist with his brush and pallet left behind portraits of families and miniatures of children and animals for future generations. The peddler took on various forms and expressed many traits. In his book Haickert and Walkers. (Lippincott, 1927) Richardson Wright expressed an epitaph to the peddler: "The economic need of the peddler is past. He served a purpose in the frontier life of young America that cannot be forgotten, as long as history endures. For he was a social figure in the existence of the common people and in this lies his immortality." May 30-1976. Sundav'Gazette-Mail

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