Shop ‘til You Drop
By Eleanor Chiquoine
Pictured here is a peddler's case used in the mid-19th century. Notice the hemp shoulder strap, the decorative metal medallions on the outside, and the floral wallpaper lining. It has a curved shape, to nestle against the peddler's hip as he walked. This case served a peddler who sold watches, for one of the medallions on the cover is the face of a clock.
This peddler's case harkens from a time when many peddlers crisscrossed Sauk County, bringing the store to one's door. Some peddlers traveled on foot with very small inventories. Some, like the "tin man," traveled in a wagon festooned with clanging pots and pans. In a time when getting to town wasn't easy, peddlers came to the customer.
In the mid-19th century, settlers of European ancestry poured into America. The vast majority of these new citizens planned to make a living off the land. These farm families could go through the year spending very little hard, cold cash. They raised and preserved much of their own food. They made their own soap, and slept on pillows filled with feathers from their own chickens. They heated their dwellings with wood chopped from their own wood lots. Many farm families made their own clothing from fabric they purchased. Some settlers even used spinning wheels and looms to make yarn to weave into cloth. Women knit sweaters, hats, mittens, and socks. People often bartered for goods they could not make themselves. Many farm families took great pride in their self- sufficiency.
By the end of the 19th century, times had changed. America's Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and low-cost, attractive goods were pouring into markets. People wanted "store bought" goods. Advertising efforts increased, tempting potential customers with the features of these products.
By the end of the 20th century, the transformation was total. Peddlers became a thing of the past. Now, people drive to "big box" stores where they choose from a numbing array of products -- most of them now produced in far-away countries. American teenagers report that shopping is their favorite hobby. "Shop 'til you drop!" they cry out enthusiastically. But when did shopping qualify as a hobby?!
Some pundits say that Americans are not "citizens" anymore, but rather "consumers" needed to fuel America's huge commercial engine. Is there something to be learned from the history contained in this simple peddler's case?