Photograph of Mulberry Street, c.1900. Library of Congress
Despite the greater services that these street vendors provided for the city, there were still many issues associated with them. These problems ranged from practical concerns, like blocking access to streets and sidewalks for emergency vehicles, to ethnic stereotyping. Some concerns were more pronounced than others, but all remained strong undercurrents throughout the century.
Perhaps the most striking of these issues are stereotyping and bigotry. We will address these in the “Ethnic Stereotyping” section. Many cartoons of street vendors and pushcart owners, especially the Chinese, are highly stereotypical and often offensive views of a particular ethnicity. With the large influx of immigrants to the city in this time period, many of the local “American” population were wary of any newcomers, especially those who came from cultures radically different from their own. As always, we offer the following disclaimer:
Part of this exhibit examines historical expressions of racism and stereotyping. Some of these images may be disturbing or offensive to contemporary viewers. We do not condone their messages but rather offer them as evidence of the social climate of the era.
Some of the anxiety related to street vendors was valid, however. As the number of carts reached alarming heights in certain portions of the city, particularly in the tenement districts of the Lower East Side, there were genuine fears that the sheer number of carts spilling into the street would prevent timely responses in the event of an emergency. With fires an ever-present hazard, especially in the cramped and crowded tenement houses, even a small blaze could quickly alight the entire neighborhood and cause serious damage. Other nuisances, such as occupying valuable sidewalk real estate and causing crowding in front of brick-and-mortar establishments, were also addressed alongside more serious concerns. The Pushcart Problem section will focus on the measures taken in an attempt to curb many of these matters.