But those commercial skirmishers whose mart is the sidewalk, and who cover their heads with the sky, increase in numbers every month. They are the Bohemians of trade, the Bedouins of traffic.
- Junius Henri Browne The Great Metropolis (1869)
"A banana cart, New York," n.d. NYPL
"The Hot-Potato Man"
1906 Push-Cart Commission
"An Ice-Cream Wagon"
"A Summer Scene in the Streets
of New York - Ice Cream Man"
"Jolly Poverty in
New York" 1896 NYPL
"South Street from
Coenties Slip" 1896 NYPL
Pushcarts caused the most problems to the city of New York in the nineteenth century and carrying over into the twentieth century. They also arguably provided the most services to the local community, and were far more accessible than many of the public markets. The goods sold on pushcarts rarely differed from those sold in the public markets, but they were perceived by the general public as dirtier and more dangerous. There are also accounts of customers being poisoned by the goods purchased and dire warnings against those who frequent these vendors.
From the beginning, pushcarts were seen as a nuisance because of the real estate they were occupying on the streets. By the end of the nineteenth century they were considered a downright hazard. The East Side "market," composed mostly of Eastern European Jews, was centered on Hester Street and open every day of the week except Sunday. It was one of many unofficial market spaces, unlike the actual public markets like the Fulton or Washington markets, that became so overcrowded that pushcart commissions were set up in the opening decades of the twentieth-century to cope with the problem.
Pushcarts, however, were a necessary evil for the city’s poorer populations, since it was where they obtained the majority of their daily food. Jane Ziegelman writes in 97 Orchard Street that many tenement housewives frequented the pushcart markets at least twice a day to purchase the ingredients they needed separately for each meal. The pushcarts were viewed as an extension of their home kitchens.
The types of foods sold by the pushcarts varied, though it was mostly fruits and vegetables. Some carts sold prepared foods, like potato pancakes, oysters on the half-shell, or pickles. The fruit carts often sold pre-sliced fruit as snacks and tended to be open later for those coming home from work. In the summers, they functioned as a dessert cart of sorts for people lolling outdoors in the nice weather. Otherwise, carts tended to specialize in a particular food type and were often stationed in the same place every week. They were not the type of prepared food vendors or food trucks that are in fashion today. Instead, they offered a basic and necessary service: providing ingredients for meals to their customers at relatively cheap prices.