Pack peddlers played an important role in West Virginia rural life well into the 20th century. They brought consumer goods to areas with sparse population and few stores. They also followed late 19th-century rail lines into emerging coalfields and logging areas, where a growing work force created a new market.
Peddlers carried all kinds of portable goods, from clothing and accessories to rugs and bedding, kitchenware and household items, toys, and musical instruments. To rural residents, the peddler’s arrival was an exciting occasion. A Greenbrier County woman reminisced that during her 1880s childhood, regular visits from a Jewish peddler ‘‘gave us something to look forward to. It was almost like having Santa Claus come. . . . We loved to see the big bundle opened up, for we seldom saw new things.’’ A Ritchie County man recalled that in the 1910s, two Syrian brothers visited his family’s farm twice a year. After spending the night, in the morning they would spread their wares on the floor for all to view. ‘‘What a sight for us kids,’’ he commented.
Most peddlers were immigrants, and many barely spoke English, adding to the exotic nature of their visit. These young entrepreneurs—primarily Syrians, Lebanese, East European Jews, and Italians peddling as a stepping stone to store ownership. They often relied on their ethnic networks to get started, including wholesalers from Baltimore and Cincinnati who saw a growing market in West Virginia and sent their countrymen to peddle in the mountains, supplying people with goods on credit.
Peddlers faced numerous challenges. They trudged up steep mountains toting heavy packs on their backs, though the more successful acquired a horse and wagon. Traveling alone and carrying cash, they courted danger, and stories of the robbery and murder of peddlers abound. Some coal operators who saw them as competition to company stores tried to keep them out of the coalfields. But on the whole, rural inhabitants throughout the state gave a warm reception to these purveyors of products from far away, despite their strange accents and foreign ways.
Many peddlers remained in West Virginia, and some became prosperous merchants, contributing to the development of numerous towns. They formed the basis of the state’s Syrian, Lebanese, and Jewish communities. Their descendants, such as Congressman Nick Rahall, continue to contribute to West Virginia today.
This Article was written by Deborah R. Weiner
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
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Cite This Article
Weiner, Deborah R. "Pack Peddlers." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 October 2010. Web. 23 March 2017.