From Push-Carts to Prosperity: A Journey Through NYC’s Push-Cart History

Posted on: August 22nd, 2012 at 11:41 am by

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Photograph of Mulberry Street, c.1900 Library of Congress

My maternal great-uncle is a watchmaker like his father was before him. His daughter works with him now in their store. Had they come to America before World War II, despite the obvious benefits that would have afforded, might they have sold goods from a push-cart? I ask because, of the handful of remaining family-run businesses on the Lower East Side today, a few can trace their beginnings to peddling from an early 20th century push-cart.  And that my friends, is a pretty big deal. We’ll see why throughout this Boogie back.

As for why I chose to do a piece on push-carts, well, the Lower East Side and push-carts go hand in hand.

(Was that a semi-pun? I guess I really just can’t help myself.)

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LOC 1906

Do you ever get a dirty water dog on the corner? A pretzel? How ’bout a knock off bag? Perfume? Scarves? Jewelry? Cell phone cases? Umbrellas? Phone chargers? Clothes? Watches? Books? Pictures? Art? I’m stopping now before you get bored.

These people selling wares might sell them off a table or a cart with wheels. Either way,  it’s push-cart peddling nonetheless.

Food trucks? Revamped push-cart offspring.

Push ’em, pull ’em, schlep ’em, hitch ’em – even The Food Network is in on the push-cart biz and they (the biz) is making a pretty penny.  From push-carts to prosperity: 

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(All of the above were taken by moi on my dying R2D2 Droid. Yes, Droid.)

Fancypants carts and their simple sisters are all products of the past – 19th and early 20th century carriages, horses, and wooden wagons (by the way, since it’s not either of those centuries anymore, might as well sign the petition to ban horse and carriages in NYC while you are here. Thanks). And here’s some more about the old school peddlers.

There were those (like say, writers for the New York Times) who were persons of wealth compared to those on the Lower East Side that depicted these peddlers less than lovingly. I think I’ll let you read this in it’s original format:

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June 30, 1893 NYT

Woowwww!

To offend an entire ethnicity (earlier on, the article purports that all the immigrants in the LES are Jewish, which is false) in four tiny paragraphs.

Mazel Tov!

I hope this guy dropped his pencil while documenting the filthy immigrants, and one of the vermin-infested, reeking persons handed it back to him contaminated (I never said I was completely mature).

Anyway, as I proceed, nothing changes- the articles are blatantly against push-carts and their pushers.

They obstruct, they congest, they block.

They should move, let’s put them under the bridges, let’s build them open-air public markets then close them down.

Let’s build indoor public markets and rant about how despicable their conditions are.

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Fish market under Williamsburg Bridge 1906

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Bronx Pushcart Market 1940 C.M. Stieglitz, Photographer; Library of Congress

A little snippet about public markets from the Historical index to the Manuals of the corporation of the city of New York, By D.T. Valentine (1842): Fulton, Essex, Catharine, Washington, and Jefferson markets were considered among the most frequented. In toto, there were 13 public markets in NYC in the mid-1800s: Jefferson, Greenwich, Clinton, Washington, Franklin, Fulton, Catharine, Center, Monroe, Governeur, Union, Essex and Tompkins.

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– Junius Henri Browne, The Great Metropolis (1869)

Reformers of the tenement districts were the opposition to push-carts and peddlers. I came across several Unions, Associations and Trusts created solely to govern and protect the peddlers (which have only had its negative connotation since the 16th century, mind you).

The Push-Cart Peddlers Trust composed of the United Push-Cart Peddlers’ Association, the City Peddlers’ Association of Greater New York, the East Side Citizens’ Peddlers’ Union, New York Peddlers’ Benevolent Association and the Orchard Street Peddlers’ Union together numbered in the thousands.

They vehemently opposed bills that would restrict their business licenses. In 1907, after an “exhaustive investigation” a commission was formed under the Mayor (George B. McClellan, Jr.) and their findings were the following:

…the push-carts are controlled by rich “padrones: whose system is a source of gross abuses and extortion…that the public markets will not solve the push-cart problem…that the push-cart peddlers could be abolished from the streets of New York…that such drastic action is not necessary, provided then umber of push-carts on each street is properly regulated…

 

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(I got nuthin’.)

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The Hot-Potato Man 1906 Push Cart Commission

Hungry?

From the Bard Graduate Center and the New York Public Library:

The types of foods sold by the push-carts varied, though it was mostly fruits and vegetables. Some carts sold prepared foods, like potato pancakes, oysters on the half-shell, or pickles. The fruit carts often sold pre-sliced fruit as snacks and tended to be open later for those coming home from work. In the summers, they functioned as a dessert cart of sorts for people lolling outdoors in the nice weather. Otherwise, carts tended to specialize in a particular food type and were often stationed in the same place every week. They were not the type of prepared food vendors or food trucks that are in fashion today. Instead, they offered a basic and necessary service: providing ingredients for meals to their customers at relatively cheap prices.

So what about the places in operation today that began as push-cart businesses?

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Russ & Daughters, anyone?

From around the way:

Joel Russ, the original Russ of Russ & Daughters, began selling Polish mushrooms on the Lower East Side. That was 1907.  He finally managed a push-cart and then a horse-drawn carriage until 1914 when he opened his first store. It was 1933 when renamed his store ‘Russ & Daughters after teaching his 3 daughters how to run the business.’

But don’t eat there because their founder got his start, *gasp* as immigrant peddler. *shiver*

THAT WAS SARCASM.

You should definitely eat there. The baked farmer’s cheese? To. Die. For. Just ask Louie C.K and Parker Posey!

Joel Russ eventually moved around the corner from his first store to 179 East Houston.  Still standing (thank goodness), the tenement and the store are on the National Register of Historic Places and Russ and Daughters own it . However, they deeded the building to an umbrella holding corp. in 1999.

From a push-cart to prosperity.

Now have a gander at some more awesome images I pulled. Enjoy, peeps. I’ll see you at the end.

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Map of the 10th ward, Jewish Quarter. (May 11, 1905)

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Map of the 6th & 14th wards, Italian Quarter. (1906)

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I know. I can feel the intense stares…what will you say now?  “One brick at a time”  doesn’t make sense! You’ve let us down! Alas, fear not loyal readers.

I got this.

Ready?

As alwaysAh, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis – you were forged by the keepers of secrets and those secrets I plan to find and reveal, one cobblestone at a time. Bless up.

;-)

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