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Examiner
  • Ted Stillwell: The early-day medicine show and peddlers

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  • I remember as a young lad growing up in post-war America during the 1940s and 1950s, there was still one lady on the block who used an old ice box instead of an electric refrigerator. The ice man would deliver a 25-pound block of ice to her a couple of times a week. I never knew the man’s name, but he was always eager to take his ice pick and chip off a big chunk of ice for each of the neighborhood kids on a hot summer day.
    He was not the only delivery man to come by on a regular basis, there were also the coal man, bread man, milk man, the Fuller Brush man, and the Watkins man, just to name a few. Many people did not have automobiles back then, and the ones who did, generally only had one per family. If dad drove it to work, then mom was stuck at home all day. So, the merchants came to the housewives to supply their basic everyday needs.
    These merchants were the outgrowth of the early-day medicine show and the peddler who played an important role in the building of America. The first generation of pioneers who settled across Missouri were denied access to the present day supermarkets. In fact, many of the pioneers lived so far back off of the beaten path that they only made it to town a couple of times a year. So, they relied on the peddler, or the door to door salesmen.
    The peddlers traveled on foot or on horseback before roads made wagons possible, and they carried everything a person might need, tinwork, clocks, buttons, combs and brushes, shoelaces, knives, fabric, and the latest news and gossip. In a time when communication was anything but instantaneous, the traveling salesman was a welcome sight and often shared a meal or even spent the night. In revolutionary Boston, Samuel Adams even distributed political broadsides by using the peddler to pass out his fliers.
    Here on the Missouri frontier during the 19th century, peddlers also offered special services such as blacksmithing, or firearms repair. If he could not repair a damaged weapon, he could always try to sell the needy pioneer a new one, “lock, stock, and barrel.”
    Because of their sometimes seedy reputation, though, not all of the peddlers were welcome on the frontier homestead. The old Southern farmers of Missouri had a natural distrust of anyone with an accent other than the Old South. So, many of the peddlers were no more than “Damnyankees” to the settlers, not worth wasting precious gunpowder on, so they might just sick the old hound dog on them.
    Benedict Arnold was a rather unscrupulous woolen peddler prior to getting in to trouble with the army. Jim Fisk, a famous railroad tycoon of slippery morality, started as a tinware peddler. He realized that the better known a salesman was, the more comfortable people felt buying from him, and so, he instigated circus-type posters to advertise his arrival, and draped his wagon with flags and bunting.
    Page 2 of 2 - If a peddler went to the Indians however, he’d better be honest, or he might lose his scalp. The Cherokee called the peddler Jew-wedge-du-gish, “the egg eater,” (apparently their salesman was an orthodox Jew who carried hard boiled eggs to ensure a kosher diet).
    Abraham Lincoln’s father was a part-time peddler, and so was Richard Sears, who sold watches. When he needed a watch repairman, he hired Alvah Roebuck. Together, the two of them did quite well when they created Sears and Roebuck.
    Peddler Alfred C. Fuller built a reputation as a polished salesman with his line of brushes – the Fuller Brush man has also endured to this day.
    The Bingham Waggoner Antique and Craft Fair is this Saturday, July 12 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.. at the estate, 313 W. Pacific in Independence. There will be over 100 dealers and crafters on the grounds. The Spirit of Independence Community Band will play at noon.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to teddy.stillwell@yahoo.com or call him at 816-252-9909.
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