Hawkers and Walkers in Early America: Strolling Peddlers, Preachers, Doctors, Players, and Others, From the Beginning to the Civil War

by Richardson Wright. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. 1927. 8vo. xvi+256 pp. Illus. 4.50.
THE best review of Mr. Wright’s book would be a reprint of the Index, but even that fills twenty-six large pages printed in double columns. For it is a veritable encyclopædia of vagabondage, as well as a history of primitive commerce, in which every kind of itinerant is carefully studied, the contents of his pack or wagon or boat, examined, all his shifts and devices noted. There are hints here for a hundred novels, a thousand short stories, an epic of the Open Road.
I do not see how anybody — at least, any man — could read Hairker.s ttnd K alkers without some twinges of envy, both of the author for having thought of compiling it, and of the vagabonds he describes. It must have furnished a glorious hobby, this gathering of what our forefathers would have called ’the quaint, the curious, and the quizzical.’ from a thousand sources, most i»f them old books of travel, local histories, private journals and letters, and defunct magazines. It is a species of adventuring almost as exciting as that of the ; otonial traders, and much less dangerous. For research, when pursued with enthusiasm, is a kind of detective work, in which clues lead one into all sorts of strange placets*a kind of hunting in which onemay arouse a long-hidden quarry in every thicket. Mr. AY right has unearthed many a queer custom aud many a queerer customer.
Ills purpose being primarily historical, lie has been concerned first, of all with accumulating facts; but from among the facts emerge a troupe of pilgrims as various, as picturesque, as those of Canterbury. One can read of folk as different as Bishop Asbury and Johnny Appleseed; Phineas Barnum, showman, and John Bart ram, botanist; Nicholas Culpepper, physician, who was the last to teach the Doctrine of Signatures, and John Fitch, inventor, who sold beer at Valley Forge; Gustavus Ilesselius, artist, who could paint anything from a house to a ’landskip.”and Lambert, strong man. who could ’hold four persons at arm’s length’: William Augustus Howies, ‘Ambassador of the United Nations of the Creeks and Cherokees,’and Stephen Burroughs, black sheep, who tried his hand at counterfeiting, preaching, jailbreaking, and school-teaching, in turn, to die at last, highly respected, ‘surrounded by books and scholars.’ Indeed, there is no end. I have been able to think of no important omission except the wandering naturalists, like Audubon, and they were not primarily engaged in trade. And if one prefers to know what were the street cries of two centuries ago, who first walked the tight rope, who invented the Canestoga wagon and the stogie, how much it cost to send a letter from Boston to Portland, and who were the famous silhouette cutters of 1800 it is all here, for there is hardly a page without its curious fact or fancy.
The result of this accumulation of detail is to give one a lively sense of the passage of time and of the growth of commerce before the building of the railroads. The history of peddling in America is really a history of selling throughout the ages, from the first pedestrian merchant who followed the primitive trails with a pack on his back to the pony express and the stagecoach. Hankers and Walkers is a delightful and informing book one not only to read but to dream oxer.