Illustration by Dermot Flynn

The peddler, similar to a wheelwright, currier, or carter, pursued a trade now mostly relegated to history. But as guest lecturer Hasia Diner, the Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, explained at a recent talk in Barnard Hall, the “ordinary, unsung, and usually anonymous” foot soldiers who sold their wares door-to-door were often Jewish immigrants who became catalysts for change in Western Europe, the British Isles, Africa, the Antipodes, and the Americas. Drawing on her study of diaries, first-person accounts, and letters, Diner explained the curious position the Jewish immigrant peddlers had in their new worlds and how their profession shaped society and the way we shopped.

The focus on the peddler was a deliberate one for the Barnard Forum on Migration, helmed by Professor Jose C. Moya of the history department. “The forum approaches the concept of migration holistically, as a crucial component in the historical development of our hemisphere, country, city, and even neighborhoods, that continues to this day,” explained Moya. “And because the Jewish diaspora has historical significance both globally and in New York, it’s a theme we regularly explore.”

Arriving in a new location, a Jewish immigrant would rely on relatives or friends from his country of origin for credit for goods, as well as the basic knowledge of the trade: the best routes, which houses to avoid, and the essential phrase—would you like to look in my pack—that would get them through the door. Peddling was a dangerous and physically demanding occupation. A newly minted salesman, with little grasp of the language or customs of the locals, would head out on a route with up to 150 pounds of goods on his back, fighting illness, weather, and theft, dependent on learning the language and customs from the customers he served. And that, Diner said, was where an informal cultural exchange began to take place. Because the peddlers were dependent on their customers for meals and lodging, conversations often went beyond simple transactions. The peddlers were aware, she added, that they were “exemplars of Jewish people,” and that it was common for conversations between the two cultures to delve into discussions ranging from local politics to beliefs about the Old Testament to simple language lessons. Lithuanian Jews would become familiar with the Christian calendar while selling tablecloths to Irish Catholics; Ashkenazi Jews would learn conversational Spanish from Buenos Aires housewives while collecting payment on credit.

Typically, a peddler would be on the road five days a week, arriving back at his settlement by Friday. The Jewish-peddler economy was an insular one, with Jews occupying and managing every rung on the ladder between production and sales. The first rung on this economy was the door-to-door peddler, who was typically a young single man. As he gained experience and savings, he had a few avenues for development, explained Diner. If he were successful on foot, he would likely invest in a wagon and horse, which allowed him to sell heavier goods and have access to greater territory. Other peddlers settled into working as merchants or manufacturers, with the eventual goal of going into business on their own.

But it was the door-to-door hawker who made the biggest inroad into the new-world culture. Because he would most often interact with the woman of the household, the peddler represented a major economic disruptor. Women had economic agency in deciding how and with whom they would spend the household money. Thus, in smaller communities such as mining towns, the company store no longer had a monopoly on goods.

Diner recounted one recorded incident where priests in a small Irish town banded together to denounce the peddlers, even going so far as to pull goods from the hands of a farmer’s wife midtransaction. Her response—to ask the priests to get off her property immediately—was evident of the mutually beneficial relationship between peddlers and customers. Customers would get the goods they wanted (often including small luxuries such as tablecloths, fabrics, and kitchenware they associated with their social betters) while peddlers would gain an economic foothold in a new home.

The number of 19th-century peddlers is not known, as the transient nature of the work made it almost impossible to count them by census. Among them are standout names like Guggenheim, Seligman, Lehman, and Straus (both the family associated with Macy’s department store and Levi Strauss, the inventor of denim). While new methods of manufacturing and transportation marked peddling for obsolescence at the turn of the century, department stores in almost any major city during the 20th century had their roots in peddler society. And even though the job itself was a common one taken by any young immigrant, the collective role of the peddler was enormous. Step by step, door by door, Jewish peddlers helped foster migration and shaped their integration into the societies in which they lived.