“The first pushcart market was established in 1866, when four peddlers, tired of pushing their loaded way over the cobbles of the Civil War paving, propped their carts up by the curb in Hester Street and let their customers come to them.” (NY Times, Mar. 30, 1930)
Of course, this population dramatically increased.
From New York Times 1927 – “The itinerant peddler is common enough in New York. … Down of the east side there are nooks to rambling old buildings, which, although just big enough for one person to stand in them, afford the heads of families a profitable business. … In certain sections of New York no nook or corner is too small to rent out to a vendor of confectionery, soda water or knick-knack. A small counter or a shelf or two is enough to house and display his stock.” (NY Times, Feb. 27, 1927)
I always thought that Manhattan Greek immigrants, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – including my grandfather – peddled flowers, fruit, vegetable, and fish. But some of the first Greek peddlers were furriers, from Kastoria Καστοριά, Siatista Σιάτιστα and other northern Greek or Macedonian towns. Early small shops and peddlers began along 8th St. in the late 1890’s. As the century turned, Greek peddlers, pushing their carts, moved into flowers, fruit, fish, vegetables, etc. (“The Greek Community of New York”, Michael Contopoulos, 1992)
Early in the 20th century, Greek immigration grew. Greeks, leaving their home, came to America to make a life. “They were in pursuit of a good life, to rapidly accumulate savings and to enjoy the social amenities of the contemporary, materialist world. When the Greek immigrants disembarked in New York, they were met by relatives, friends, travel agents and padrones at South Ferry”. (“The Conceptual Poverty of U.S. Foreign Policy,” Atlantic, September 1993, 55.)
My paternal grandfather could have been one of these. He came to America and had a specific destination beyond New York. He came into NYC, and journeyed ahead for Lynn, MA to friends expecting him.
Differently my maternal grandfather knew no one in America and followed a path as laid out by author Michael Contopoulos. “Of the remaining Greeks, some sought employment as flower sellers and pushcart peddlers in New York. Others found job opportunities in the confectionary, fur, shoe shining, restaurant and hotel businesses, and in oriental cigarette manufacturing establishments. The immigrants who had neither relatives nor friends made inquiries at the numerous, nameless, little eating places in the Lower Manhattan Greek district. These little restaurants acted as unofficial clearing houses of employment opportunities. In this way, the newcomers found job leads, addresses and directions from their compatriots. They accepted openings as workers, busboys and cook’s assistants in the laundries, dining rooms and kitchens of prominent hotels, such as the Belmont, Brevoort, Chelsea, Plaza, Prince George, Bretton Hall, and Seville.” (“The Greek Community of New York”, pages 64 – 78, Michael Contopoulos, 1992)
My maternal grandfather came to NYC ahead of my grandmother. She stayed in Greece with the children about three years before immigrating to America. In the meantime, my grandfather became a peddler fairly soon after arriving.
Many years ago – I was about 10 or so – we would often visit my grandparents on Lexington Avenue in NYC. My Dad would drive us from Stamford, CT in a 1955 black Mercury. I-95 and Bruckner Boulevard had not been built yet. You can imagine that ride with our parents and younger sister in the front, and 3 not well-behaved boys in the back.
Sometimes my Mom and Dad would drive me and my grandparents toward Williamsburg Bridge on the East Side of Manhattan. Via translations, I heard my grandfather’s stories about working with other Greeks and sharing revenue and costs as a team. They would go to Williamsburg Bridge or nearby and gather stock for peddling. Before my grandmother came, the team of peddlers may have lived together, or at least closely in separate rooms. He spoke of living alone and missing his wife.
My grandmother told us that she would take her kids and go to work in the morning with my grandfather. She would ask other male peddlers, single and alone in Manhattan, if they needed any clothes washed. She would take the clothes home, wash and dry, and return the next day or so. This would bring in an extra bit of money to the household. They had five daughters, so any additional money would obviously help.
I remember looking at the both of them, much older by that point, and smiling at them and thinking about their lives. Even as we all got older, thinking of their first years in America and the feeling of them together so in love and with a smile, stayed in my mind and heart. It was hard work, but he had been a farm laborer growing up in Greece. Neither grandparent ever said anything negative about Manhattan or America.
My grandparents, as other Greek immigrants for sure, migrated from an agrarian-provincial environment to an industrial-urban society in Manhattan and other cities. Like others, my grandparents held onto The Greek Orthodox Church, and Greek newspapers, but moved forward into America completely in love with it.
Supporting this positive view of Manhattan and America, was an early 1900 Greek newspaper – The Atlantis. “The immigrants toiled endlessly. Pushing their small carts, the itinerant vendors plied the streets, selling chestnuts, flowers, peanuts and fruit. …” The Atlantis glorified the United States as a “New Jerusalem.” The newspaper eulogized America for recognizing initiative, individuality and self-respect. To the Atlantis, America favored the “self-made man. (Summary of several Atlantis articles, 1902 – 1908, more on The Atlantis in future posts.)
I don’t remember the exact streets my grandparents referred to during our ride. “The blocks on Orchard Street between Rivington and Delancey (as spelled in article) are called “Wall Street” by all the pushcart men in town.” NY Times, Mar. 30, 1930
These streets sound familiar, but that was a long time ago. But I do remember that Williamsburg Bridge was where he would pick up supply for the next few days. Here are two pictures, Rivington from 1912 and Williamsburg Bridge from 1906. (http://all-that-is-interesting.com/new-york-immigrants-photos#1)
What I heard about my grandfather’s early years as a peddler in Manhattan are reinforced by a terrific personal story told by an unknown Greek peddler. (Part of an anthology. “The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves. https://archive.org/stream/lifestoriesundis00holtrich#page/62/mode/2up “There were six of us in a company. We all lived together in two rooms down on Washington street and kept push carts in the cellar. Five of us took out the push carts every day and one was buyer, whom we called boss. He had no authority over us; we were all free. At the end of our day’s work we all divided up our money even each man getting the same amount out of the common fund – the boss no more than any other.”
“The system prevails among all the push-cart men in the City of New York – practical communism, all sharing alike. The buyer is chosen by vote.”
“The buyer goes to the markets and gets the stock for next day, which is carried to the cellar in a wagon. Sometimes buying takes a long time, if the price of the fruit is up, for the buyer has to get things as cheaply as possible. Sometimes when prices are down he buys enough for a week. He gets the fruit home before evening, and then it is ready for the next day.”
(As my grandfather agreed.) “I found the push cart work not unpleasant, so far as the work itself was concerned. I began at nine o’clock in the morning and quit about six o’clock at night.”
“I could not speak English and did not know enough to pay the police, so I was hunted when I tried to get the good place like Nassau Street, or near Bridge entrance. Once a policeman struck me on the leg with his club so hard that I could not work for two weeks. That is wrong to strike like that a man who could not speak English.” (This marks the end of the quote. “The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves. https://archive.org/stream/lifestoriesundis00holtrich#page/62/mode/2up
Even years later, my grandfather talked about how frightened of the police he was. Many Greek peddlers, and no doubt other immigrant peddlers, had issues with the law. Limited English fluency and inadequate observance of the license ordinances were among the major problems faced by the immigrants. It is very likely that my grandfather’s concern with police had lots to do with his lack of speaking/writing English.
More on legal issues of Greek peddlers in the next post.