Read CHAPTER II - PEDDLERS AND PEDDLING of The Peddler's Boy / I'll Be Somebody, free online book, by Francis C. Woodworth, on

I have more than half a mind to give you a rough sketch of the Yankee Peddler.

“But I know all about this race of men already,” perhaps you will say.

Do you? Well, then, consider my sketch as having been made for another reader, and not for you. The fact is for I want to let you into one of my little secrets, just here, to start with the story I am telling is one about a peddler’s boy; and I have got a notion that it would be a good plan to devote one chapter, before I have any more to do with the boy himself, to that famous class of men who get their living principally by peddling small wares about the country.

The peddler the genuine Massachusetts or Connecticut peddler usually has a wagon built on purpose for his business, so fitted up that it will conveniently hold all the articles he has for sale. One who has ever taken a peep into a peddler’s wagon, will not need to be told that his assortment comprises a great many different articles. Tin ware occupies a large space. In this department may be found tin ovens, sauce pans, milk pans, graters, skimmers, and things of that sort. Then the genuine peddler is always provided with two tin trunks, I believe trunks which are large enough to hold about half a bushel each. These trunks are stored full of little knick-knacks, “too numerous to mention,” as the dealer in dry goods has it in his advertisement.

The peddler does not often drive his trade in the city. He finds the country the best place for him. So you generally come across him where there are not many stores, and where the houses are not very close together. He stops before the door of a house. I say he stops; but I ought rather to have said his horse; for the old nag, who, perhaps, has been in his service for a quarter of a century, stops of her own accord at the door of every respectable looking house on the route. She needs no hint from her master in relation to this matter.

Indeed, I once heard of a peddler’s mare, who was so well persuaded that it would be for the interest of her master to stop at the gate of a certain large and neat-looking farm-house, which gate the peddler seemed, for once, disposed to pass by, that she actually stopped in the road, and looked round at the man who had the helm, as if she would say, “My dear sir, there must be some mistake about this matter. Are you crazy? Upon my word, this is one of the strangest things that has ever turned up since we’ve been driving this peddling business.”

We will suppose, now, that the faithful horse, guided by something which, for want of a better name, people generally call instinct, but which seems to me a good deal like reason, has stopped at the door of a house. The peddler, taking good care to carry along with him the tin trunks before mentioned, leaves the wagon, and goes into the house, the faithful mare, in the meantime, leisurely grazing, if it is summer, and stamping and kicking, just for exercise, in order to keep warm, if it is winter.

“Any tin ware to-day, madam?” the peddler asks. Perhaps madam does want some tin ware, and perhaps she does not. We will suppose, now, that as far as the department of tin ware is concerned, her wants have been entirely supplied. Then follows a partial enumeration of the contents of the two trunks. Did you ever hear a peddler rattle over the names of these small wares? He does it as rapidly, almost, as a bobolink goes through the different notes of his song: “Any pins, needles, sewing silk, twist, buttons, tape, jew’s harps, hooks and eyes, scissors, penknives, pocket books, handkerchiefs, breast pins, ear rings” and so he runs on, hardly waiting for the good lady, who is looking over the articles by this time, to put in a word edgewise.

Peddlers, as a class, are set down as pretty wide awake in driving a bargain. They have been slandered, I doubt not. A great deal of unfairness and dishonesty have been charged to them, of which they never were guilty. Still, I think they are apt to be pretty shrewd and keen, when they are trading. Sometimes, no doubt, though not always, they are too shrewd and keen to be strictly honest; for there is a point where shrewdness and keenness ought to stop.

When I was a little boy, I lived in Connecticut. My home was in the very bosom of the country. It was not often that anybody from the busy world came there; and when one did come, he was sure to make something of a stir, especially among us little folks. The advent of a tin peddler’s wagon, I recollect, I hailed as a most remarkable event. It always seemed to me that a peddler’s head was as full of knowledge as it could well hold. Such a budget of news as he always opened! Such smart things as those which came from his mouth! Such wonderful good nature as he showed towards the children. Why I don’t remember that I ever heard a peddler speak cross to a boy, though we used always to tumble over the nameless “notions” in his trunks to our hearts’ content, all the time he stayed in the house. I hardly know which interested me more, the driving up to our door of a peddler’s wagon, or the entrance into our kitchen of half a dozen Mohegan Indians, with their squaws and pappooses.

The age of clock peddlers had not come then. Wooden clocks are plenty as blackberries now; and you can buy one for a song, almost. But Connecticut clocks were quite unknown in my childhood. Now, I suppose, the peddlers sell more clocks than tin ovens and sauce pans. But the peddler of clocks and the peddler of tin ware is, in all important particulars, one and the same.

Did you ever hear of the peddler who sold a load of clocks that would only keep in order twenty-four hours, and hardly that? It seems that his clocks were, like Peter Pindar’s razors, made to sell, and not to run. Well, he went a good way off from home, before he offered any of his wares for sale. He found no trouble in selling the clocks, for they were wonderfully cheap; and besides, as he took good care to inform all his customers, each clock was warranted, and on his way homeward he would call at every house where he sold a clock, when he should take pleasure in exchanging all the clocks that did not perform well. Now it turned out that his clocks were not worth a farthing. He sold out the whole load, though every clock but one. Then he turned about, and commenced his journey homeward, calling upon all his customers, as he had agreed to do.

“Well, how did that are clock run neighbor?”

“Run! it didn’t run at all. It stopped as still as a gate post before you had got up Pudding Hill!”

“Did it though, raly?”

“To be sure it did. What on earth did you sell me such a clock for?”

“Well, now, you needn’t take on in that style. I’ll give you another clock. I told you I would, when I sold it to you.”

So the cunning peddler gives his customer the only clock he has left, and takes the one he sold him at first, in place of it. And that is the way the fellow managed all the way home.

There are a great many stories told about peddlers, which, I presume, are not true, and it is sometimes rather difficult to sift the genuine stuff from the chaff. I really don’t know how much to believe of the anecdotes of Connecticut peddlers of former times. It is a matter of history, that they sold wooden nutmegs, and horn gun flints, and white-wood cucumber seeds, and white oak hams. But I should not wonder if these stories were made out of whole cloth. The truth is, there have been, first and last, a great many false charges made against “the land of steady habits.”

It is a common notion that peddlers are very apt to make dupes of the ladies. Perhaps they are. But I know of one instance in which a peddler got nicely come up with by a lady. I don’t believe any man could have done it better. The story is this. A peddler, with a wagon load of tin ware, drove up to the door of a house around which quite a number of children were playing. The mistress of the house made her appearance, and was urged to trade. She had no money, she said. That was no matter, the peddler replied. He would take anything in pay rags, old clothes, worn out tin, anything. But she hadn’t got anything.

“Well,” the peddler continued, “I’ll take one of your children.”

The lady thought a moment. “Very good,” said she, “you may have that ragged boy yonder for ten dollars, and I’ll take the value of him in tin.”

The bargain was struck.

The lady selected the tin ware, and it was carried into the house. The peddler mounted his seat, with the ragged urchin by his side, and threatened to drive off. “Of course,” he thought, “she will not let me go away with the boy. She will pay me the money, when she sees that I am raly going.” He was mistaken, though. He had reckoned without his host, this time.

Crack went the whip. “I’m going now,” said he. “I’m off in less than no time.”

“Very well,” said the good woman; “so I supposed.”

He actually started, and went a few rods, slowly, when he stopped, turned around, and said, “There, now I’m off for sartain.”

“So I heard you say some time ago,” said the lady.

“But are you willing I should take off this ’ere boy?”

“Certainly,” said the lady. “We keep the town’s poor here, and this is the worst fellow in the lot.”

The story is that the peddler, when he found how completely he was outwitted, gave, in money, about as much as the tin he had parted with was worth, to get out of the scrape, or in other words, to get clear of his young pauper.