Defining the Types
Photograph of Mulberry Street, c.1900. Library of Congress
In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, New York was thrown into chaos as the immigration rate increased rapidly. In her talk about the German immigrants in nineteenth-century New York (February 20, 2011), Jane Zeigelman cites that between 1840-1860 alone 1.5 million immigrants flooded the shores of the United States, with roughly 979,000 settling in New York City. Many of these immigrants were German and they formed Kleindeutschland, the third largest German-speaking enclave outside of Europe. Germans were not the only immigrants to come in floods to the city. Italians and Eastern European Jews also arrived in abundance. It was between these three immigrant groups that the majority of food peddling was handled. Many of these immigrants attempted to maintain their connections to the food ways of their homeland, such as sauerkraut for the Germans, or through festivals or holidays. This meant that they often went to great lengths to procure products especially from their home country; Italians were particularly well known for this. These immigrants would often corner the market in peddling certain foodstuffs. Germans in particular were mostly butchers, a special case among peddlers in New York City, while the Jews and Italians handled all other goods.
The ways in which these goods were sold to the public could take a variety of forms. Most common were the public markets and pushcarts, with roving peddlers popular among certain ethnic groups. For example, the Germans had the cabbage shaver who would travel door to door cutting cabbage for seasonal sauerkraut home production. The two types, however, that had been in use from the beginning of the century were the public markets and mobile basket peddlers. By the middle of the century, pushcarts became popular and would quickly pose a problem for the city councilmen.
This section intends to highlight each of these three methods of purchasing food, offering examples and images of what was for sale from each. It will also briefly discuss the individuals behind these small businesses.