Hucksters' Petition to the Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia, December 18, 1805
This petition is one of the few surviving documents left by the predominantly poor group of women who sold produce, nuts, poultry, fish, seeds, and prepared foods in the open-air markets of early Philadelphia. Since the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania, poor, elderly, infirm, disabled, and widowed women had relied on huckstering (street vending) to obtain a meager income. A century later, the pool of hucksters had grown significantly to include both women and men of many different backgrounds—some white, some black, some, married, some single, some widowed, some able-bodied, some infirm, some young, and some old. Urban lawmakers and residents became alarmed by the increasing diversity and quantity of the hucksters, believing that they threatened the social and economic order of the city’s markets. As a result, city legislators passed an ordinance in 1792 that banned hucksters from selling their goods in the markets. Because most hucksters were poor and had few other opportunities for employment, the law had a severe impact on their daily lives. Over the next decade, hucksters who lived in the city and in surrounding rural areas fought against the city’s regulations through lawsuits and petitions such as this, despite the likelihood that most could neither read nor write. As one of the few political tools available to the masses, these petitions became the most common tool hucksters used to challenge the laws that pushed them out of the marketplace and threatened their ability to provide for themselves.
At first glance, the petition appears as little more than a plea for charity from a group of destitute women. Set within its proper historic context, however, the petition emerges as a far more potent political document. At the time, national and state legislators were wrestling with the new political concept of democracy and how involved the government ought to be in regulating the economy. A close reading of this document illustrates that these 19 huckster women were also engaged in these larger debates. The petitioners played on the pity and compassion of their legislators, but they also argued that the laws that structured the market were unequal and that they were denied a democratic right to access the marketplace. Their ultimate plea was that city legislators designate certain stands for poor, sick or disabled, and elderly market women like themselves in exchange for a small rental fee. This request to have a designated space within the city’s markets was much more than an attempt to secure a comfortable spot under the eaves of the market sheds; it was an attempt to occupy a formal, legitimate place in the larger market economy. The women who signed this petition envisioned a market culture in which the state ensured that the weakest members of society had an equal opportunity to compete, earn a living, and perhaps accrue a savings that would carry them through old age. Overall, then, the petition reveals a novel vision of economic democracy that this group of poor workingwomen believed should structure the markets of the early republic.
Document description and footnotes by Candice L. Harrison, University of San Francisco
Candice L. Harrison, "'Free Trade and Hucksters' Rights!' Envisioning Economic Democracy in the Early Republic," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 137 (2013): 147-177.