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MANY PEOPLE OF FOREIGN BIRTH walked the Brooklyn streets daily. People called them peddlers. Mr. Harry Golden has written an interesting history of Jewish peddlers in one of his recent books. Perhaps some of these peddlers who came to Brooklyn were Jews.
We could never differentiate between peddlers as far as their nationalities were concerned, but we thought them to be mainly Italians and Syrians. Most of them had swarthy complexions, straight black hair and could have been easily mistaken for some types of colored people.
Some of them were settled-looking men with faces lined by tension and struggle and backs perceptibly bowed from carrying heavy loads. Others were young and full of the freshness of youth, and their eyes fired with the desire to sell and be successful.
I remember one young fellow who must have very recently come to America. He would approach, smile graciously and repeat, Buy something? these two words seemed to constitute the largest part of his knowledge of the English language.
Sometimes mischievous children would call out when they saw the peddlers, Here comes, ‘Buy Something!’ These men seemed to be extremely friendly and always happy to open their packs and spread the contents on a porch for people to select from their wares.
One man carried his big leather box that resembled a small trunk strapped across his back. It always seemed to be heavily loaded because he sometimes walked along in a stooped position. The foreigners were often small in stature but seemed to be able to carry extremely heavy packs.
Many of Brooklyn’s more affluent residents did their buying at uptown stores and were treated with utmost courtesy. Many of those with limited funds patronized the peddlers. I don’t remember a peddler coming to our house to open his pack except on a few occasions. I did get a chance to look at their things when they were spread out on a neighbor’s porch. The peddlers carried a variety of brightly colored medium-grade merchandise. I remember distinctly the pretty colorful bedspreads and laces they sold. There was an abundance of pins, needles, thimbles, soap and other small useful articles that housewives needed in their homes.
The wages of people who bought from peddlers were usually in the lower economic bracket and didn’t allow them enough money to pay cash for sales, but they and the peddlers would agree on an installment plan for buying. Long ago it was said that many stores that sold clothing would not allow a colored person in a certain economic group to run an account at a store or try on goods. Their accounts were not considered of enough size or importance. Often, the installment plan of buying from a peddler was the only chance these housewives had of getting what they wanted and needed.
The peddlers were shrewd businessmen. No doubt, many of them had come from the ghettos and low-economic groups of Europe. They were familiar with the economic plight of the lower wage group of colored people. By extending tolerance and showing faith in their promise to pay, they provided the people with materials that they wanted and developed a profitable market for their own goods.
For years, there was little competition for this market until many stores and markets in the city began to realize that installment buying by people considered to be in the lower economic bracket was often the key to financial success.
After many businessmen came to the realization, the peddlers gradually disappeared from the street. But these itinerant peddlers (and I don’t think they realized it) did much to open the doors of trade for the masses of colored people and helped recognize them as a flourishing, potential market when allowed to pay for goods in proportion to their monthly or weekly earnings.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996