New York – pushcarts and peddlars

Pushcarts were once a quintessential part of the New York landscape. When did they disappear? Who imposed the death of the pushcart?

According to municipal records, the pushcart saga began one fall day in 5626/1866, when four peddlers set up pushcarts on Hester Street on the Lower East Side, kicking off a trend that endured for seventy-five years. At the turn of the last century, pushcarts dominated and congested New York’s streets, as they were the profession of choice for many Jewish immigrants.

For many greenhorns pouring in, it was easy to rent a pushcart until they could move on to something better. Recently landed immigrants were advised by friends to take a pushcart until they could establish themselves in some business.

For them, the pushcart was the first rung on the precarious ladder to success. Jewish peddlers had been part of the American scene since the 5560s/1800s when hundreds of them hauled the produce of America’s industrial revolution on their backs and carts to far-flung villages and homesteads, dispersing the Jewish presence all over America in the process.

In the early 5600s/mid-1800s, a contemporary writer divided the Jewish peddler into six distinct classes: “(1) The basket peddler—he is altogether dumb and homeless; (2) the trunk-carrier who stammers some little English, and hopes for better times; (3) the pack-carrier, who carries from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds upon his back, and indulges the thought that he will become a businessman some day. In addition to these, there is the aristocracy, which may be divided into three classes: (1) the wagon-baron, who peddles through the country with a one or two horse team; (2) the jewelry-count, who carries a stock of watches and jewelry in a small trunk, and is considered a rich man even now; (3) the store-prince, who has a shop and sells goods in it.”

To escape the harsh reality of constant travel over rough roads, even the basket peddler never ceased dreaming that, one day, his rags would turn to riches, a process that could eventuate either through hard work and saving, or through the ingenuity of the yiddisher kup.

A well-known example of the latter was Meyer Guggenheim, who started out peddling household goods in Philadelphia during the 5610s/1850s.

One day, an unpleasant thought struck him, “For every dollar of goods I sell by the sweat of my brow, I earn about 30 cents while the manufacturer turns a tidy profit of 70 cents. Wouldn’t it be wiser for me to become a manufacturer myself?” He examined the collection of items on his sales list, searching for something that he could improve and sell as his own line, and the perfect candidate was the caustic oven polish in his bundle.

For months, housewives had been complaining that while the polish did a beautiful job polishing stoves, it soiled and burned their hands in the process. With the help of a chemist, Guggenheim invented a new stingless, stainless stove polish that put him on the road to the millionaire club.

Needless to say, the peddling life was a churban for Jewish observance. As the Chofetz Chaim warns in the introduction to his sefer, Nidchei Yisroel, Jews cut off from their home kehillos were in terrible danger. Where would they fi nd a minyan or get kosher food? The Chofetz Chaim describes how these unfortunates fall down the slippery slope of nonobservance by persuading themselves that it is better to transgress a few issurim in order to enjoy success and return home all the sooner.

However, aveira goreres aveira, (one sins leads to another sin), and before they know it, they have discarded almost everything. With no Torah-observant parents, these people’s children are then completely lost to Yiddishkeit.

Illustrative of this trend is the story of a Litvishe talmid chochom’s son who wanted to move to a place where money was more plentiful but Yiddishkeit was weak. Afraid of what might happen to his son’s progeny in such a place, the talmid chochom told him, “I bless you that you never have children in that place,” and sure enough, the son remained childless until his dying day.

Peddlers became trapped in a vicious cycle of non-observance, almost unable to escape. As one lost soul confessed in his diary, “G-d of Israel. Thou knowest my thoughts. Thou alone knowest my grief when, on the Sabbath’s eve, I must retire to my lodging and on Saturday morning carry my pack on my back, profaning the holy day, God’s gift to His people Israel. I can’t live as a Jew.”

New York’s peddlers were far better off, spending their days in the shadow of America’s largest Jewish kehillos, where the streets swarmed with an amalgamation of Jews, Greeks, and Italians, each hawking his wares in his own tongue.

As the New York Tribune of September 5658/1898 reports, “The neighborhood of Hester, Norfolk and Essex Streets presents a quaint scene. The streets are black with purchasers, and bright with the glare of hundreds of torches from the pushcarts … The voices of the peddlers crying their wares, the expostulations of the purchasers, the mingling of the Yiddish of the elders with the English of the young people, make a strange medley of sounds.”

Within these three streets, 1,500 peddlers spent their days and nights scrabbling for a living and the whole city hosted 25,000 of them.

In addition to curtains, wallpaper, and carpets, the Tribune reports, the lines of carts held almost everything – “dried fruits, fresh fruit, pickles, preserves, vegetables, meat and fish alternate with household utensils, boots and shoes, jewelry and clothing, books and stationary.”

Fish was a popular but risky line among the pushcart peddlers. “The fish carts are largely in the majority,” the Tribune continues. “The wholesale merchants sell the fish at auction to the peddlers who go in crowds to the stores of the dealers and have a lively but anxious time in trying to outbid each other. Sometimes the fish is condemned by the Health Department, to the great loss of the peddlers. As many as fifty tons of fish are sometimes seized from them in a day.”

However, even as the peddlers hawked their wares in a happy melee, time was working against them. Although tens-of-thousands of consumers enjoyed buying cheap groceries and dry goods at their front doors, others objected to the Babel of confusion that inevitably accompanied four to five thousand peddlers crammed into relatively small districts. Carts stood in unbroken lines, disrupting traffic and adding to the danger of fires. Peddlers had a hard time bribing police in order to avoid arrests for blocking the streets.

Added to this was the snobbishness of established America towards the uncivilized greenhorn. They haughtily called immigrant neighborhoods

“Pigvilles,” and exaggeratedly described their markets as, “an inch deep in mud, mingled with banana peels, corncobs, paper, peelings, melon rinds, all swarming with flies.” Their belief was that the old time, Eastern European flavor of sidewalk trade symbolized immigrants’ reluctance to “Americanize,” and plotted “to convert the East Side of alien congestion into an American community.”

Red-blooded Americans wanted civilization in the marketplace. Even storekeepers would have to stop their old-fashioned practices, such as haggling over prices and “schlepping” – a custom of storeowners standing in front of their door, and calling in or even pulling potential customers inside by their coat sleeves.

A mayoral 5666/1906 investigation of the market situation expressed this diplomatically, “The city is a cosmopolitan one, the home of representatives of nearly every nation in the world and the customs and habits of many of its inhabitants are not the customs and habits of others; practices which would not be tolerated in one part of the city are necessary and desirable in other parts.”

However, people loved the wheeling abandon of pushcart commerce and all attempts to destroy it failed until the advent of Fiorello LaGuardia, who took up the closure of the ‘pushcart plague’ as his personal crusade.

Few people are aware that this famous New York mayor was actually 100% Jewish, his mother originating from a Jewish home in Trieste, Italy. He generally kept the secret of his roots under his hat, only occasionally speaking to Jewish crowds in Yiddish during elections. One of the only times an issue was made about his Jewishness was shortly before World War II, when LaGuardia expressed a violent hatred of German policies, referring to Hitler as a perverted maniac and using other caustic terms. At the time, the newspapers in Germany retaliated by calling him “a dirty Talmud Jew.”

After his election in 5694/1934, LaGuardia began activating New York’s long frustrated dream of creating a pushcart-free “East Side of Tomorrow.” This would be accomplished by replacing the peddlers with indoor municipal markets, particularly in the East Side where half the pushcarts of New York raised a tumult from morning to night. Some peddlers liked the idea, like one who exulted, “Tomorrow, you’ll see me in a clean shirt. No more like a peddler, I’ll be a merchant.”

Shopkeepers were delighted since they would no longer have to compete with peddlers hawking wares outside their doors. Idealizing their motives, they wrote that the “establishment of central public market buildings and the abolition of all curb pushcarts” was “the altruistic endeavor of public-spirited citizens to do away with a civic menace and disgrace.” Not until it was too late did they realize they were shooting themselves in the foot.

Within eleven years of LaGuardia becoming mayor of New York, the number of its peddlers dropped from 15,000 to 1,200, at which point the merchants realized their error. Hundreds of their customers loved the old world ambience of the pushcart world and used to specially travel in for the experience. Now that there was nothing to attract them, they stopped coming, and by 5701/1941, merchants on Orchard Street were reporting a 60% plunge in business. It took a long while for business to recover.

The death of pushcarts symbolized the changing of the times, the displacement of rugged individualism by slick commercialism.

(Sources: Birmingham, Stephen. Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York. Syracuse University Press: 1996; Wasserman, Suzanne. The Good Old Days Of Poverty: Merchants and the Battle Over Pushcart Peddling on the Lower East Side. Metropolitan Studies Program, New York University; New York Tribune, Sep. 15 1898; Lower East Side Tenement Museum; “Humble Roots of American Retailing,” “LaGuardia 1, Hitler 0,”American Jewish Historical Society.)

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