When you think of a peddler or a traveling salesman in the frontier days, what do you picture in your mind?

Again I have to blame Hollywood for the image that comes into my head. A wagon with pots and pans rattling as he comes around the corner into the yard.

Peddler showing his wares to a farm family, 1800s.
Peddler showing his wares to a farm family, 1800s.
Hanging from the wagon is an assortment of shiny new tin hollowware; more tin-ware hangs from the wagon walls, which also contains dusters, brooms, and other household items. The wagon has racks, drawers, and cabinets filled with all sort of trinkets and small household items.

And this was probably the way it was, but not until later. The first peddlers didn’t have the luxery of a road to travel on, so they traveled from farm to farm with their trunks strapped on their backs or, as roads improved, on the back of a pack-horse or in a cart or wagon.

Trunk peddlers sold smaller items like combs, pins, cheap jewelry, knives and woodenware, knitted goods, and books.
Peddler 3
Most were willing to barter their wares in exchange for farm products from their cash-strapped and isolated rural customers (many early Indian fur traders were in this sense little more than peddlers), then carry those goods for resale at a cash profit in country stores and town markets.

In early 1884 several traveling salesmen walked across the Ozarks Mountains bringing goods, referred to as “notions,” to sell on their trip. They bought the goods with money they earned selling fish they caught in the White River in Arkansas.

Notions are things like needles and thread, knives and buttons. Such small, useful items were scarce on the frontier. They were also easy for a peddler to carry. 

The men made good money selling notions. In just a half a day in Willow Springs, the men sold $4.65 worth of goods, which was a lot of money in those days. They had problems selling their wares in some towns, however. Local merchants sometimes didn’t like strange travelers taking business away from their stores. In Thayer, the sheriff even took the full pack of goods one of the peddlers was carrying because he didn’t have a merchant’s license.