Atlantic History Itinerant Traders, Peddlers, and Hawkers
Anne Montenach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0371


Itinerant traders, peddlers, and hawkers were part of the commercial landscape of the Atlantic world from at least the end of the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century. They formed a heterogenous group of men and women selling a wide range of products to a wide variety of customers and operating at many different levels: while hawkers were to be found mostly in towns and suburbs as door-to-door sellers, peddlers were rural salesmen who usually carried their stock on their back—or, for the wealthiest, on a packed mule—and traveled over much longer distances. Over time, new categories emerged, from 18th-century itinerant wholesalers who distributed manufacturers’ goods to shopkeepers—the most famous being the Manchester men—to the more recent traveling salesmen, who will not be part of this survey. For the most part, they are often glimpsed only briefly, or simply missing, in historical records, which makes it difficult to estimate their numbers. Itinerant traders were frequently accused, by local authorities and shopkeepers, of operating at the margins of the law and were therefore often prosecuted. However, they played a crucial part in the economies of the Atlantic world. Their activities were often linked to urban shopkeepers and manufacturers who supplied them with wares, at a time when shops were far from being the only source of supply. More importantly, they played an essential role in providing a range of old and new consumer goods—from cheap food and books to fashionable novelties—for the urban poor and people living in remote rural areas. From this perspective, itinerant dealers, their networks, and credit-based trade should be considered not as a marginal or archaic form of exchange, but as an essential and highly adaptable component of the economy as a whole.

General Overviews

Itinerant traders were a familiar sight in the early modern Atlantic world and an essential part of the trading community. Throughout the scattered capsule histories of European peddlers, Braudel 1982 pointed out the crucial role they played in the distribution of a vast array of goods in rural areas and the difficulties in categorizing the various types of itinerants. While Poitrineau 1983 included peddlers, among other workers, in a study of seasonal migrants from the Auvergne and the Pyrenees, Fontaine 1996 challenged existing interpretations of itinerant traders’ supposedly marginal position and highlighted their influence as mediators between urban and rural society in early modern Europe. Istituto Internationale di Storia Economica F. Datini 2015 demonstrates that this type of approach, which takes into account the variety of itinerant sellers and of their trading spaces and networks, is still being fruitfully pursued. Van den Heuvel 2012 focuses more specifically on street vending and provides a useful overview of past studies, together with stimulating comparisons of informal street trading in the preindustrial and the contemporary world. Friedman 2004 offers an engaging counterpart to these Eurocentric studies by tracing the history of salesmanship in the United States and charting the transformation of peddling in 19th-century America. As shown by Hart 2019, these ubiquitous figures were viewed with suspicion by shopkeepers and the authorities in 18th-century Britain and North America, while consumers in all social categories were keen to make use of their services. Meanwhile, poets and artists depicted them in all their picturesque and ambiguous otherness, as demonstrated by Cox and Dannehl 2007.

  • Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century. Vol. 2, The Wheels of Commerce. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

    In the second volume of his monumental survey of early modern capitalism, first published in France in 1979, Braudel acknowledges the importance of peddlers in traditional economies and shows how they filled the gaps in early modern distribution networks. Often associated with seasonal migrations, peddling was an eminently adaptable system.

  • Cox, Nancy, and Karin Dannehl. Perceptions of Retailing in Early Modern England. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    The third chapter of the book focuses on contemporary perceptions and representations of itinerant traders and their contribution to early modern retailing. It provides a careful analysis of ambiguities in available sources emanating from local shopkeepers and authorities, customers, poets and artists.

  • Fontaine, Laurence. History of Pedlars in Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

    First published in France in 1994, this ambitious study moves away from the traditional urban view of peddlers, preferring to focus on rural rather than urban sources, and challenges long-standing, common assumptions that peddling was a marginal and individual activity. The European scope and broad chronological span allow Fontaine to highlight the complex commercial and financial networks linking mountains and lowlands and to trace the development and decline of peddling.

  • Friedman, Walter A. Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674037342

    Of the ten chapters outlining the evolution of salesmanship in the United States, the first three highlight the earliest developments of face-to-face transactions, ranging from antebellum peddlers to traveling salesmen, through more specialized canvassers after the Civil War. Each chapter is based on significant individuals who played a role in the development of selling techniques and marketing of goods to American consumers.

  • Hart, Emma. Trading Spaces: The Colonial Marketplace and the Foundations of American Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226659954.001.0001

    From the colonial era to the early American republic (1660–1800), this book studies the actual functioning and ideological construction of markets in three areas of the early modern British Atlantic (Britain, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina). It offers unprecedented comparisons between market regulations, the notion of “public good,” and rhetoric toward itinerant traders across Britain’s Atlantic world, together with useful analyses of racial bias underpinning discrimination against Afro-Carolinian peddlers.

  • Istituto Internationale di Storia Economica F. Datini. Il commercio al minuto tra economia formale ed economia informale. Secc. XIII–XVIII. Retail Trade: Supply and Demand in the Formal and Informal Economy from the 13th to the 18th Century. Florence: Firenze University Press, 2015.

    The third section of this collective volume offers five contributions dealing with various aspects of itinerant trade in early modern western Europe, ranging from small street hawkers to traveling merchants.

  • Poitrineau, Abel. Remues d’hommes: Les migrations montagnardes en France XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1983.

    A lively synthesis of early modern seasonal migrations focusing on the mountainous Auvergne and Pyrenees regions. Peddlers were part of a wide range of male migrants and here Poitrineau reconstructs their harsh working conditions, together with the familial, social, and cultural aspects of their lives.

  • Van den Heuvel, Danielle. “Selling in the Shadows: Peddlers and Hawkers in Early Modern Europe.” In Working on Labor: Essays in Honour of Jan Lucassen. Edited by Marcel Van der Linden and Leo Lucassen, 125–151. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2012.

    A welcome contribution to the study of informal street-vending in preindustrial Europe, which addresses the similarities and differences with debates in the contemporary context. Van den Heuvel articulates the existing historiography on street selling with the last findings of her own research on the Northern Netherlands. In particular, she highlights the flexibility of ambulant trading and the wide variety of people involved.

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