By the 1960s, visitors to the Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue had grown accustomed to seeing the latest in contemporary art as well as the most ancient of Jewish ceremonial objects in its galleries. But photographs of pushcarts? Talk about “matter out of place.”
Still, they oohed and aahed at images of the humble object, which had come to rest in the museum as part of Portal to America, a multimedia exhibition on the history of the Lower East Side. The younger members of the audience regarded the peripatetic contraption as if it were an ancient archaeological relic, which it might as well have been, so foreign had this 8-foot-long and 4-foot-wide amalgam of wood and metal come to be.
But for others, especially those who had once called an immigrant neighborhood their home, it wasn’t distance so much as proximity that accounted for the pushcart’s newfound appeal. A physical testament to how far America’s Jews had come, it bore witness to their upward mobility and, for good measure, to dramatic changes in the urban landscape.
The pushcart, an old world convention, was once a familiar presence within the immigrant enclaves of the nation’s urban populations. Chicago’s Maxwell Street was thick with them, as was New York of the early 1900s, where “pushcart men,” most of them clustered on the Lower East Side, numbered several thousand strong. Sometimes entire congregations of pushcarts converged on the same downtown street, rendering it an impromptu outdoor market.
Eventually, the pushcart all but vanished in postwar America, replaced by shiny supermarkets, whose capacious aisles contained a stunning assortment of neatly shelved goods. Its disappearance—some might even say its erasure—was bound up with growing affluence, new patterns of consumer behavior, heightened attentiveness to public health, and greater municipal control of the streets.
It’s a big story and a familiar one to those of us today who are mindful of the “not in my back yard” response to urban life. Then, as now, civic-minded, middle-class urban dwellers of the late 19th- and early 20th-century city didn’t take kindly to people, practices, or things that might upset their equipoise. Though few, if any, pushcarts were to be found in their handsome, tree-lined neighborhoods, its residents branded them all the same as a “menace,” or, worse still, as an “evil.” They held the portable market, and those who wheeled it around, responsible for spreading germs, “contaminating the atmosphere,” and congesting city streets. They also decried the noise it generated, the smells of “putrid vegetable matter” it gave off and the limits it posed on childrens’ “play space.”
The “vexatious” pushcart had to go. To that end, its detractors hoped that licensing each and every one might reduce their number. But that plan backfired. Not only did it not result in declining numbers; it augmented them, giving rise to a new business venture: the renting out of licenses for a fee, a practice akin to the taxi cab medallion.
An attempt was then made to limit to 10 minutes the amount of time pushcart vendors could stand in one place before having to move on, even enlisting the police to keep time. That impractical scheme didn’t work, either: There were too many pushcarts to be monitored and besides, the police had much better, more pressing, things to do than nudge peddlers to get going. Makeshift at best, like the rickety pushcarts themselves, none of these initiatives sufficiently addressed the heart of the matter: The pushcart was too entrenched in the urban ethnic economy to be dislodged lock, stock, and barrel.
In fact, only a few outside observers of the time understood that the pushcart was far from the liability, much less the health hazard, it was made out to be. Those sensitive to the ecology of the immigrant experience recognized that the mobile outdoor market afforded the immigrant poor the perquisites of convenience, freshness, affordability, and, most especially perhaps, economic opportunity.
By carrying a wide array of items—foodstuffs, mainly, but also shoes, aprons, house dresses, trousers, garters, and household utensils and crockery—pushcarts put America’s bounty within easy reach of the immigrant poor. Their contents, observed a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, “would make a fairly complete and sizable department store.”
It also made for convenience, freeing from worry the mother who had to dash out for provisions, leaving her children to fend for themselves. “Right in front of her tenement,” observed David Blaustein, the sympathetic superintendent of the Educational Alliance, in 1902, “is the pushcart which will supply her with what she needs.” And in small, affordable quantities, too, whose price was negotiable rather than fixed. A rapid turnover of goods, fueled by an absence of places in which to store them, ensured a fresh supply and one that enabled consumers to purchase just a few bananas rather than the entire bunch.
That immigrants with little capital and even less English could eke out a living standing behind a pushcart, as could those temporarily out of a job, further cemented its hold on the immigrant body politic.
Once it became increasingly clear that the pushcart was not going anywhere any time soon, the city’s growing cadre of reformers sought an “intelligent remedy” anchored in information rather than attitude. “No one knows what the facts really are,” observed the members of the City Club, urging Mayor George McClellan to form a citizens committee to get to the bottom of the “pushcart problem.”
He did, establishing in 1905 what turned out to be one of the most detailed and arguably one of the most sensitive municipal inquiries of the prewar era: the Mayor’s Push-Cart Commission, whose staff conducted a census of local peddlers, mapped and photographed their location, peered into the contents of their carts, and held hearings at which peddlers, their customers, and municipal authorities testified.
When published a year later, the findings of the Mayor’s Push-Cart Commission ran to well over 200 pages. Recognizing that New York was a “cosmopolitan” place, where “practices which would not be tolerated in one part of the city are necessary and desirable in others,” it sought to balance the needs of the “tenement house population” with those more concerned about congestion and sanitation. The solution: the regulation rather than the abolition of pushcarts. Said to be “simple, comprehensive, practical and fair,” its recommendations placed a curb on the number of pushcarts that might occupy a given street at any one time. They also enhanced the licensing system so that it would include a photograph of the licensee as well as the text of his permit in his native tongue, be it Yiddish, Italian or Greek, as well as in English.
Granted a temporary reprieve, pushcart peddlers continued to ply their trade well into the post-WWI era. But the East Side Chamber of Commerce and other municipal interests had something else in mind. Their hearts (and pocketbooks) set on transforming the ghetto into the “East Side of Tomorrow,” they looked forward to widening the streets, razing many of its tenements, building middle-class housing, and, above all, removing the noisome pushcarts and planting them indoors, out of sight.
Their efforts, actively endorsed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who declared “war” on the pushcarts, ultimately bore fruit with the debut of the First Avenue Municipal Market, in 1938, followed a year later by the Essex Street Municipal Market. Clean, well-lit, and well-regulated, a “modernistic” shelter from the elements, where vendors were expected to be courteous to their customers and to refrain from shouting and hawking, these indoor markets represented progress: Good riddance to Old World forms of commercial traffic.
By outlawing the use of pushcarts and insisting that street vendors rent a stall within the rose-colored brick walls of the Essex Street and other municipal indoor markets, La Guardia put his stamp on the modern metropolis. He also claimed credit for enhancing the standing of its once itinerant residents, declaring in a speech that “I found you pushcart peddlers … I have made you merchants.” And just like that, declared The New York Times, the “century-old era of the East Side pushcart markets gave its last gasp.”
Chances are that outdoor peddling might have died a natural death, anyway. As more and more vendors became store proprietors or wholesalers, their ranks markedly declined, a process of declension hastened by their clientele’s migration to middle-class neighborhoods where shopping had become an indoor sport and pushcarts passé.
No sooner had itinerant peddlers become a vanishing breed than they came to be seen as quaint and endearing, the stuff of postcards—“wish you were here”—and other expressions of nostalgia rather than the objects of opprobrium. This unanticipated about-face puzzled The New York Times, prompting it in 1940 to wag its finger at those who now hungered for the seemingly good old days when people sat on stoops, hung their bedding out the window, and shopped on streets that “reeked.” It makes you wonder about “this thing that we call picturesque.”
Many, many years later, another startling about-face came to pass: the return of the outdoor market. No, not the city-sanctioned Greenmarkets that, ever since the 1970s, fill Union Square, among other places, several times a week, but improvised, jerry-built, 24-hour fruit and vegetable stands that now line the main thoroughfares of the Upper West Side and other middle-class neighborhoods.
A consequence of COVID-19, which rendered indoor shopping perilous while also pushing thousands, especially the city’s immigrant residents, out of work, these commercial ventures are as much a product of our time as the pushcart was of its time. They’re a reminder that, in the city that never sleeps, history doesn’t either.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.