Photograph of Mulberry Street, c.1900 Library of Congress
Welcome to the exhibition 'Bohemians of Trade and Bedouins of Traffic': New York Street Vendors, 1800-1914. Through this exhibition we will educate our visitors about a vital part of daily life in New York City during the “long” nineteenth century that extends through the start of WWI. We will explore a number of issues regarding the food vendors of this era, while also providing a brief sketch of their wares and the individuals themselves. Vendors today are an integral part of the "New York Experience," from the gyro and rice carts, to the ubiquitous hot dog and pretzel vendors. Some might find it surprising, though, to know that many of these cart types were also popular in the nineteenth century (see the pretzel vendors in the “Peddlers” section of “Defining the Types”).
New York City in the nineteenth century was a very different place than what visitors may be familiar with today. Some things, however, are still very much the same, and food vendors fall into this category. With the immigrant population exploding and serious overcrowding in the Lower East Side(the main area of interest for this exhibition), the landscape and types of individuals on the street were vastly different from what one finds today. However, the public markets, though dirtier and more crowded, often resembled the nice farmer’s markets held in Brooklyn and Union Square on the weekends today. The vendor carts, though wholly without many of our modern technological amenities, were just as populous as they are now, if not more so. More importantly, these public markets and pushcart vendors were often the sole source of food for some immigrants. Though grocery stores existed for staple dry goods(such as biscuits, flour and sugar), all fresh produce and meat came from these markets. Therefore, the services rendered by these vendors served a much greater purpose, perhaps, than the hot dog cart in Times Square does today, and should be the subject of further scholarly inquiry.
Our visitors should note that while we are dealing with a seemingly innocuous topic, the buying and selling of food, it was a subject rife with troubles for contemporaries. The carts were supposed to be licensed, which created major issues later in the century. Additionally, many perceived the vendors themselves as intrusions on New York life, and certainly considered them a nuisance to decent society. Therefore, some of the images in this exhibition can be unsettling in their often blunt depiction of the vendors as individuals. As such, we would like to present this disclaimer for those that may take offense to these presentations:
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.
A note about navigating the site: Our exhibit is ordered in such a way that one can jump from exhibit to exhibit without losing part of the narrative. However, we have provided at the bottom of each page links to subsequent sections. Our exhibit is divided into two research areas: One explores the different types of vendors in New York during this era and is called “Defining the Types,” while the second examines historical issues surrounding the vendors themselves, titled “Common Issues.” Within each page we have provided a variety of “clickable” options for visitors who wish to explore the topics more. All of the images can be clicked to use shadowboxes for better viewing. Likewise, certain words are hyperlinks to more information or images related to the topic. We encourage visitors to click these links for more information.
We thank you for visiting and hope you enjoy your tour.