Thursday, July 25, 2013

Who are you calling a “Huckster”?

Whilst researching my Great Great Grandfather Robert Wilson Wilkinson (1830 – 1874), I looked for his occupations in the US Census records.   He died in 1874, and so I looked first in the 1870 census where I found him listed as a “huckster”!  This seemed to me to be a pejorative statement, so I checked in the American Heritage Dictionary where I found the definition to be “One who uses aggressive, showy, and sometimes devious methods to promote or sell a product.”  Fortunately I stopped to also look at the archaic definition, which stated “One who sells wares or provisions in the street; a peddler or hawker”. 

Working backwards in time, the 1865 Massachusetts State census his occupation says cryptically “periodical depot”.  In 1860 it says “clerk”.  The 1855 state census has him listed as a “shoemaker”.  In 1850 he was 20 years old and listed as a shoemaker. He lived his entire life in Peabody, Massachusetts (even though the earlier censuses list him in Danvers, before the town split into two bodies in 1855 and South Danvers became Peabody in 1868).  Peabody is known as the “Leather City”, and other family members were also shoemakers, tanners, hide cutters, etc.  But his later occupations puzzled me.

I looked next at city directories. In the 1864 Salem City Directory (Danvers, thus Peabody, too, split off from Salem) there is a listing on page 97 for “Wilkinson, Robert W., Main, Periodicals”.   In the 1866 Salem City Directory, there is a listing on page 229 for “Wilkinson Robert W. 13 Main Fruits and Vegetables”, on the same page under “confectionaries” and on page 230 under “Periodicals” at the same address.  Apparently he had a store or stand at Main Street where he sold these small articles? But in the 1873 Danvers City Directory he is listed on page 199 as “watchman”, just a year before he died.

Just for fun, I checked out 13 Main Street, Peabody on Google maps, and switched to street view. I couldn't find number 13, but number 14 is now a dollar store. Some things never change!

I checked the advertisements in the back of the Salem Directories and other nearby cities.  Periodical stands and “depots” sold newspapers, magazines, stationary, and other paper items (including cardboard collars!).  I’m guessing that for a while he sold newspapers and then switched to fruits and vegetables.  All are small items sold from carts or stands.  Perhaps this was too strenuous and he became a watchman?

As a younger man, my ancestor Robert Wilson Wilkinson was a shoemaker, like so many other young men in Peabody.  Why was he reduced to being a peddler? He died of “heart disease” at the age of 46. Had he been ill for a long time and not able to do manual labor?

These answers won’t be found in census records or directories…


Etching is "Pushcart Peddler"  by Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1880 - 1948, American

Photo "Toronto News Stand, Spadina Avenue", September 1938,  Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1500, from the City of Toronto Archives, via Wikimedia Commons


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Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. My husbands grandfather, John Sperl, was also a huckster. During the depression he would go to the produce yard and buy vegetables; he had a cart and would sell them in the town.

    He was mentioned in one of Studs Turkel's books by the name of "Rotten Apple John" My husband said that he kept a credit book of people who owed him money, but he would throw it away because he knew that they could not pay.

    I will have to look up that story and write a post about it.

  2. Heather,

    I want to let you know that two of your blog posts are listed in today's Fab Finds at

    Have a great weekend!

  3. I see what you mean about the evolving definition of "huckster," first neutral and then pejorative. Many people are street-sellers -- in fact, we depend upon them. I've always thought it was a hard living to sell from a stand. I hope your g-g-grandfather didn't have too hard a life.

  4. "Peddler" of small items or wares, such a street salesperson who performed a small magic trick to attract a crowd. "Pitchman" such as 'circus barker' to a featured attraction.