Peddling History
Littleton, N.H. : Photographed and published by Kilburn Brothers, c.1889.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The U.S. scrap industry can trace its roots, in part, to the well-known Yankee peddlers, who played a significant role in establishing the recycling trade in Colonial America.

Back then, peddling was a young man’s trade and was often seen as an excellent entry into the business world. Prior to the 1830s, most peddlers reportedly came from New England – hence the term Yankee peddler. Outfitted with a wagon and a load of goods on credit, these hardy souls traveled west along the toll roads and south along the coast, plying the back roads in search of homesteads in need of their goods. According to the Neward Museum, these itinerant salesmen “served an important economic function by distributing manufactured urban products to rural areas.”

Yankee peddlers began by selling items made from tin-coated iron sheet. The metal sheet was imported from England and worked during the winter into hundreds of household items – from candlesticks to whistles. In addition to tinware, Yankee peddlers sold pins, gunpowder, clocks, cloth, buttons, and more. Since many of these items were for sewing or kitchen use, it was usually the woman’s job to barter for her necessities and luxuries.

The peddler’s customers, who usually had little or no cash, paid for goods with produce, furs, moonshine, scrap metal, leather, or rags. The peddlers then sold these bartered goods in nearby towns or brought them back as raw material to the New England factories that made their stock of new goods. Rags, fabric scraps from sewing, and worn-out clothing were particularly valuable bartering items because both cotton and linen were in great deman by the water-driven paper mills in Massachusetts. At the time, paper was made almost exclusively from rags. It wasn’t until 1867 that wood pulp was used as a substitute raw material.

Yankee peddlers were known as shrewd, hard-bargaining entrepreneurs. They also acquired a reputation – justified or not – for unscrupulous dealings, which gave rise to the expression “Damn Yankee!” that you still hear today. Their colorful character made them popular subjects in art and literature – for instance, they figured prominently in The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper and works by Mark twain as well as paintings such as Yankee Peddler by John Ehninger. These traveling salesmen were also lampooned in penny joke books and immortalized in tales about their cunning ways.

In one story – which could be folklore – a Southern innkeeper told a peddler that he could have free lodging if he’d play a Yankee trick before he left. The next morning, the peddler showed the innkeeper’s wife his goods for sale, and she especially liked a coverlet that matched the ones she already owned. After the peddler had closed the deal and ridden away, the innkeeper realized that the “sneaky Yankee” had sold them their own coverlet from his bed at the inn.

Yankee peddlers are also the purported source behind Connecticut’s nickname The Nutmeg State, even though the spice doesn’t grow within 1,000 miles of the place. It may be an apocryphal story, but early peddlers supposedly carved wooden nutmegs from aromatic cedar trees as they worked their way south. They then passed off these ersatz nutmegs as the precious Dominican spice to unsuspecting farm wives.

Despite these and other stories of trickery and fast dealing, the system must have been inherently honest since it survived for more than a hundred years – until about the mid-1800s. Many peddlers, in fact, worked the same route year after year. These mobile merchants were usually a welcome sight in remote areas where people seldom traveled and had little news of the outside world. In exchange for a little gossip and perhaps some music or storytelling, the peddlers often earned a hot meal and a bed for the evening.

Though there are few detailed accounts of Yankee peddlers’ lives and transactions, the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School has the complete business records of Morillo Boyes, a successful wholesaler and scrap trader in Bennington, Vt. In the book Waste and Want, author Susan Strasser gives us some insight into the workings of Noyes’ operation. From an 1854 ledger, for example, she found that good sorted rags were worth 3 ½ cents a pound, while brass fetched 15 cents and different grades of copper wholesaled for 22 and 29 ½ cents a pound.

Noyes supported a fleet of up to 25 wagons and supplied his peddlers with printed price lists for scrap items they could accept in barter. In later years, the peddlers often shipped sacks of scrap metal and rags back to Bennington from railroad depots, where they picked up additional goods to sell. The scrap they collected included lead (used to pack tea and other imports), rubber, as well as brass buckets and pans, which the button industry sought so it didn’t have to rely on British sheet stock for raw material. Overall, the Yankee peddler established a nicely balanced trading system, with finished goods hauled south and west and raw materials returned north as backhauls in the same wagons.

As these peddlers save a little cash, many of them settled down and opened stores. Notably, a few captains of American business – including Frederick Trent Stanley, founder of Stanley toold, and Dick Dears of Sears, Roebuck and Co. – began their careers as peddlers.

As the 19th century progressed, however, canals and railroads gave rise to cities and towns that replaced the peddlers’ usefulness. Established, taxpaying merchants also complained about the competition from migrant salesman. In addition, restrictions on peddling and licensing laws became commonplace.

Scrap peddling didn’t disappear with Yankee peddlers, of course. European immigrants kept the trade alive well into the early 20th century. With some knowledge of merchandising and precious little resources, these immigrants left the eastern cities in search of customers. These latter-day peddlers where often specialists, selling metalworking tools and taking back crap metal or selling cloth and buying back rags and cuttings. By World War I, the most successful of these peddlers had established permanent scrap metal, paper, and rag businesses, many of which survive to this day.

Tom Mele, Connecticut Metal Industries Inc. (Monroe, Conn.). Originally published in “Scrap,” March/April 2004.