The Ethics of thePeddler Class

by Frank Chodorov, March 6, 2007

Peddlers Truck
A 1930’s peddler’s truck overladen with pots and pans and baskets and washboards.

[This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist, published in 1962.]

I was born on the lower East Side of New York and brought up on the lower West Side. (I bring in these facts as introduction to some ideas that may be of general interest, not as autobiography.) Of my earliest experiences I remember practically nothing.

But, one incident does come to mind. My father, an immigrant who, like many others, took to peddling as a means of making a living, brought me a toy of some sort from one of his trips; maybe the fact that this was the only toy I ever had, if memory serves me right, made an indelible impression on me. In those days, and under the circumstances, a toy was a rarity in the life of a youngster.

As a vocation, peddling has long since gone out of style in this country, and the image of the peddler that has remained is not a glamorous one. Yet, the peddler must be given credit for helping to build the great American economy. He began his enterprise by bringing to the hinterland a modest pack on his back, as much as he had capital for, selling the contents and returning to his distributing point as soon as possible. He lived frugally, saved much of the proceeds of his sales, and invested his savings in a larger pack. He continued this process until he had saved enough to buy a horse and wagon, which enabled him to go more deeply into the sparsely settled areas and distribute more merchandise.

After a few of these trips he found a burgeoning community that gave promise of supporting a permanent or resident peddler, that is, a merchant. He built a shack in this town and filled it up with things folks wanted, and made his residence in the back of the store. In due time, he brought a wife to help him with the chores and to share with him his meager quarters. As the town grew so did his store. He built another room to hold more wares, and then an upper story, meanwhile moving his wife and children to a more commodious house. And when he died he left his heirs a department store.

This is the story of most of the department stores, the merchandise marts, that dot the American landscape today; they began with a pack on some peddler’s back. Indeed, it is the story in broad outline of many of the industries that make up the American economy, from steel to automobile; some pioneer, beginning in a small way, exercised industry and thrift and plowed back his savings into his business to serve the needs of the community. He might have, as conditions warranted, borrowed the savings of others to expand his enterprise, but until he had demonstrated his ability to render service, and the need for it, his capital consisted mainly of his own savings.

That practice has gone by the boards these days for one reason: the income tax absorbs the savings of the entrepreneur before he can lay his hands on it. The tax-collector gets the accumulations that might have been plowed back into the business, and growth from modest beginnings is therefore impossible. This has the tendency to discourage enterprise, to freeze the proletarian into his class regardless of his ambition or ability. The imaginative entrepreneur of today must begin on a relatively large scale, by borrowing from the government against a government contract or some enterprise undertaken on a government grant or guarantee. The “little man” must remain little.

Now, the peddler, using the term figuratively, was the backbone of the American economic and social system. He was the middle class man who prided himself on his initiative, self-reliance, independence and, above all, his integrity. He might be shrewd and even grasping, but he never asked for favors and certainly did not expect society to take care of him.

In fact, if he thought of society at all, he thought of it as a collection of individuals, like himself, each of whom contributed to it, and that without them society simply did not exist. To keep his standing in the society of which he was an integral part, he paid his debts and taxes regularly, went to church as a matter of course, voted as his conscience dictated, contributed to local charities and took part in civic affairs. To be “good” a society had to consist of “good” men, and therefore the ethos of his community was his own. He was society.

And he was middle class. But, the term, in the context of the early part of the century, carried certain connotations that have been lost. In popular usage the term “middle class” designates those whose incomes provide them with more than the mere necessities, who enjoy some of the luxuries, who have saved up something for future contingencies, and who are neither “rich” nor “poor.” That is, we think of the middle class in terms of income.

In that context, we might include in the present middle class many who in former times would have been classified as proletarian; for the income of many who work for wages today is sufficient to provide them with satisfactions that would have been luxuries to the old middle class. The merchant or the banker of that era did not dream of an automobile or of a Florida vacation, nor did he enjoy any of the home conveniences that are now considered necessities by most of those who have nothing to sell but their labor. Thus, in economic terms, the middle class is much larger and much more affluent than it was in the past.

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