Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Hear the "cries" from Victorian-era cities—rendered in booklets that captured the world of street vendors through illustrations and rhyme.
Urban living will always have its challenges, but life in Victorian cities was even smellier, germ-ier, and less equitable than in today's. There is one area, however, where 19th-century streets had ours beat: Musicality. If this video is any indication, street vendors—peddling everything from crabs to toys to rat-catching services—turned their filthy cobblestones into a veritable opera house.
Witness these two gems gleaned from Internet dredging: Mahlon Day's The New-York Cries, in rhyme, and Andrew White Tuer's Old London street cries and the cries of to-day (with heaps of quaint cuts including hand-coloured frontispiece). (That's "cuts" as in woodcuts.)
Produced for New York children who "like learning more than play," the first book is a kind of young buyer's guide to the sounds of street vendors. Besides turning peddlers' cries into paddy-cake rhymes (mostly cheerful, though "Scissors to Grind!" comes off as a bit disturbing), the book includes tips on the convenience of matchsticks, the virtues of Long Island produce (the "garden of New York"), Carolina potatoes, and... sand ("principally from Rockaway Beach").
Old London takes a more anthropological approach, being an overview of several centuries' worth of solicitous yelling. "[M]erchandise of almost every description was formerly 'carried and cried' in the streets," Tuer writes, detailing every item, vendor, and shout, earnest and otherwise.
To wit: "A jovial rogue whose beat extends to numerous courts and alleys on either side of Fleet Street, regularly and unblushingly cries, 'Stinking Shrimps,' and by way of addenda, 'Lor, 'ow they do stink to-day, to be sure!'"
Also from Tuer: "[T]he grave earnestness of the mirth-provoking cry of the Cockney boot-lace man, 'Lice, lice, penny a pair of boot-lice!' is strong evidence that he has no thought beyond turning the largest possible number of honest pennies in the shortest possible space of time."
Today, melodious product-hawking is mostly contained to sports stadiums and farmers markets on the boisterous end of the spectrum. Many U.S. cities prohibit vendors from vocalizing about their wares; in others, it's just not part of the culture.
What are our street cries, circa 2015? "DVDs! Files as clean as Netflix!"; "Faaaaalafel, ho! Does a mid-town banker good!"; "Here's a solid iPhone shell/$10 to 'fend it, should it fell/Purchase not, and you'll soon regret/A damage worse than a lifeless pet!"