Hathi Trust

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!"

Happy hawking.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    Bernie Sanders and AOC Unveil a Green New Deal for Public Housing

    The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over a decade to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

  2. photo: Helsinki's national library
    Design

    How Helsinki Built ‘Book Heaven’

    Finland’s most ambitious library has a lofty mission, says Helsinki’s Tommi Laitio: It’s a kind of monument to the Nordic model of civic engagement.

  3. Life

    Tailored Place-Based Policies Are Key to Reducing Regional Inequality

    Economist Timothy Bartik details the need for place-based policy to combat regional inequality and help distressed places—strategies outlined in his new book.

  4. photo: Swedish journalist Per Grankvist, AKA the "Scandinavian Malcolm Gladwell."
    Environment

    To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story

    Per Grankvist is “chief storyteller” for Sweden’s Viable Cities program. His job: communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.

  5. photo: Interstate 70 near Odessa, Mo.
    Transportation

    In the Trump Era, Transportation Funding Is Simple: Build Roads

    Under Trump, an Obama-era transportation grant program designed to fund innovative multi-modal projects became a rural highway-building machine.

×