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Hucksters’ Paradise: Mobile Food in Urban Charleston, Part 2
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The business of peddling food through the streets is an ancient practice that became a part of Charleston’s culinary scene during the colonial era. The real “golden age” of local huckstering dawned after the Civil War, when scores of formerly-enslaved people expanded this popular and convenient form of marketing. As technology transformed commerce in the early twentieth century, the dwindling numbers of urban hucksters became nostalgic characters in an increasingly romanticized version of Charleston history. But they never really disappeared from local streets, and their legacy continues in the twenty-first century.
The vast majority of the hucksters operating on the streets of Charleston in centuries past were men and women of African descent. Prior to the arrival of emancipation in 1865, most were enslaved residents of the city whose legal owners empowered them to work independently in the streets and generate a bit of money. The end of slavery severed traditional ties of racial co-dependence and forced many people to scramble to find new sources of income. At the same time, thousands of people living on rural plantations felt inspired to come to Charleston to begin new lives in the vibrant city. With few opportunities for education and vocational training, many poor freedmen and women hustled food in the streets as a practical means of earning a living. Selling fruit, vegetables, fish, or cakes required very little experience or investment from day to day. As long as one was willing to work long hours in all kinds of weather toting food through the streets, there was a constant demand that generated a slim margin of profit.
Browsing through my own notes on this topic, taken from a variety of historical sources, I’ve found references to lots of different types of food being sold on the streets of Charleston. I don’t claim to have an authoritative, comprehensive list of all the foods sold by local hucksters, but I will share with you an alphabetical sample of the variety just to whet your appetite: beans, benne candy, blackberries, cabbage, crab (raw and boiled), corn, cream, curds, dumplings, eggs, ground-nuts (peanuts), ground-nut cakes, fish (especially small fish like shad, mullet and porgy), honey, ice cream, milk, monkey meat (coconut), okra, oysters (raw, shelled), peaches, pickled artichokes, pickled onions, pickled peppers, and pickled “manigos” (mangos), “pannycakes,” potatoes, cooked rice, shad roe, shrimp, strawberries, sugar cane, squash, sweet potatoes, “tetter poon” (sweet potato pone), tomatoes, turtle eggs, and watermelon.
Here at the public library and on the Internet, you can find hundreds of books, journal articles, and essays about the culture of post-Civil War and early-twentieth-century Charleston that include numerous references to street hucksters. Rather than attempt to summarize this cultural phenomenon or even to simply mention the highlights, I’d like to delve into the cultural framework in which the huckster’s operated and try to clear a path for further study. This topic is certainly big enough for a future dissertation written by some energetic student. Besides the obvious culinary aspects of this topic, and the integral Gullah-language component, there’s also a lot of documentary evidence in extant colonial, city, and state records. Within those surviving records are dozens of names of hucksters, both men and women, that could be expanded into engaging biographical profiles. But that’s all work for someone else in the future.
When we look back over the documentary record of huckstering activity on the streets of Charleston, the peddling of seafood stands out as a particularly colorful and robust part of the trade. The venerable Joe Cole, for example, sold porgy fish and shrimps in the streets from the 1870s into the early twentieth century and earned a lasting reputation for his powerful voice, rhyming songs, and hot temper. Throngs of unidentified black women selling “swimps” on the streets of post-Civil-War Charleston form an important part of the Gullah cultural legacy. Visitors and locals alike remembered with particular fondness the ambulatory hawkers selling “she crab” and “shad roe.” In short, seafood stands high above most other food groups in our historical memory of huckstering, but I believe this branch of the business was actually a late development. This conclusion is based on my current understanding of marketing laws in early Charleston. It’s a complicated story, so I’ll try to whittle it down to the bare essentials.
The marketing of fish and other seafoods in South Carolina was not regulated in any way until the spring of 1770. From that time until the spring of 1842, fishermen and fisherwomen in Charleston were required to land their daily catch at the designated public fish market. The city’s first Fish Market was built at the east end of Queen Street in 1770, then removed to the east end of Market Street in late 1807. In order to collect taxes and tolls at the site of retail, the city government required fishmongers to sell all seafood at the Fish Market, in the presence of a market clerk, and nowhere else. Small fish were sold by the string, while shrimp were sold by the plate, oysters by the quart; clams by the peck, crabs by the dozen. Despite these regulations, a minority of fishermen landed seafood at places other than Market Street, and a few hucksters illegally carried seafood through the streets. After many years of fighting these practices, which were based on convenience, City Council eventually relented on both fronts. The city adopted a law in February 1842 permitting fishermen to carry seafood from the Fish Market through the streets for sale. Meanwhile, city authorities continued to deny fishermen legal permission to land at the south end of King Street, but by 1857 the mayor admitted it was already a very common practice. By the beginning of the 1860s, the city government was forced to concede that seafood arrived daily at number of different landings around the peninsula, not just at the silted-up Fish Market at the east end of Market Street.
For these reasons, pre-Civil-War references to seafood hucksters in Charleston are extremely rare. Once the vending of seafood on the streets was legalized in 1842, and the landing of seafood was effectively decentralized in 1850s, however, a new species of bold seafood hucksters emerged to fill a constant demand among Charleston’s residential neighborhoods. In the aftermath of the Civil War, seafood hucksters emerged as the earliest-rising and loudest of all the street merchants. As such, the vendors of fish, shrimp, and crabs were the subject of numerous complaints voiced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shrimp vendors, in particular were crying on the streets long before sunrise from late spring to late fall every year in an effort to make sure their customers got their breakfast food of choice. Not everyone enjoyed waking to pre-dawn screams of “Raw Swimps,” however, so the city government intervened. City Council debated the proper hours of operation for the legions of hucksters and in September 1888 adopted “An Ordinance to regulate the crying of fish, shrimp, vegetables and other commodities in the streets of the City of Charleston.” According to this law, which remained in effect until recent times, “it shall not be lawful for any huckster, vendor or other person to cry fish, shrimp, vegetables or other commodities in the streets of Charleston for sale before 6 o’clock in the morning or after 9 o’clock at night: Provided, however, that on Saturday nights the said parties shall be allowed to cry their wares until 10 o’clock.”
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the pre-dawn huckstering of various foods on the streets of Charleston was a constant source local teeth-gnashing. The local newspapers of the 1890s and early 1900s are filled with countless letters to the editors and numerous reports of police raids that provide lots of interesting details about the trade, the personalities, and the culture of that era. During those two decades, the vast majority of the complaints focused on the noise emanating from just one particular site: A triangular patch of land at the junction of Tradd, Savage, and Rutledge Streets formed a sort of hucksters’ paradise—a place where hundreds of men, women, and children gathered every morning but Sunday to purchase supplies for a day’s worth of huckstering. This was the “ground zero” of their generation, the starting point for scores of street merchants who then spread out through the city in different directions carrying baskets and pushing carts. There’s currently nothing at that site to memorialize their activity, so I’ll try to describe the scene for you.
Rutledge Street between Beaufain and Tradd Streets is actually a causeway through what was once a tidal mudflat (now part of Colonial Lake). Construction of the causeway between Beaufain and Broad Streets commenced in the 1820s and eventually became solid ground, while the block of Rutledge Street between Broad and Tradd Streets was filled more quickly in 1890–91. Around that time, Geromeo Cantini owned a building at No. 169 Tradd Street, which was then at the western end of the street. Mr. Cantini and his brother, Anania, both natives of Pisa, Italy, came to Charleston after the Civil War and commenced trading as wholesale importers of liquor and wine. Their business was devastated by South Carolina’s liquor dispensary law of 1892, however, which restricted the sale of alcohol to a few state outlets. The Cantini brothers sued the state government in 1893 and fought to change the law, but around that time they also built a small wharf (approximately one hundred feet long and thirty feet wide) and a store on the southwest side of the intersection of Tradd and Rutledge Streets. Yes, that intersection was once waterfront property on the Ashley River, but that’s another story for another time.
We don’t know if the Cantini brothers were smuggling illegal liquor into Charleston via their Tradd-Street wharf, but we do know that it became a very popular depot for other goods. In a practice that apparently started shortly after the destructive hurricane of 1893, when the Cantini wharf might been brand new, dozens of boats arrived daily from James, John’s, and Edisto Islands and other Ashley River locations carrying seasonal fruits, vegetables, flowers, and all kinds of seafood. A swarm of ambitious hucksters met the boats every morning before dawn and haggled for bulk purchases. Parcels of food stuffs moved from the boats to the wharf to the street and then scattered in various directions like rays of the rising sun in wheelbarrows full of tomatoes, trays of shrimp, cart loads of fish, baskets of okra, wagons of melons, and so on. The white residents of the immediate neighborhood of Cantini’s wharf had a front-row seat to the daily haggle-fest, morning salutations, and the vocal exercises of the first daybreak hucksters. Awakened by the street cries on a regular basis, residents complained repeatedly every summer—when their windows were always open—for the city to enforce the 1888 law preventing the hucksters from crying before six o’clock in the morning.
Dozens of newspaper stories complaining about the morning crowds, “screamers,” and “peripatetic fiends” at the west end of Tradd Street in the 1890s and early 1900s provide valuable documentation of the business and culture of huckstering in the streets of Charleston. That press coverage periodically led to increased enforcement of the 1888 noise ordinance, and turn-of-the-century newspapers also contain regular reports of arrests in the ongoing “war on the hucksters.” It’s noteworthy, however, that there were apparently very few arrests for crying fish and other food on the streets too early or too late in the day. Instead, the Charleston Police Department routinely arrested hucksters who did not possess the required license to vend food in the street. These periodic bursts of law enforcement usually brought a temporary peace to the neighborhood and garnered a bit of revenue for the city treasury. As I read through these newspaper reports in recent weeks, I began to think that the documentary trail of the city’s efforts to regulate the huckstering business might provide some insight into the rise and fall of this historic trade. So I jumped down the proverbial rabbit hole to chase a thread that I believe might help us to see a continuum from the distant past to the present.
As I mentioned in last week’s program, enslaved hucksters operating between 1800 and 1865 were required to procure an annual badge from the city government, while free persons of color working as hucksters were liable to the same state license laws as the free white population. The city also required licenses for a number of specific businesses in the years before the Civil War, such as liquor licenses, omnibus licenses, auctioneer’s licenses, and so on. After the war, in January of 1870, the city adopted its first comprehensive business license law that included scores of professions and occupations under one classified fee schedule. At that time, an annual license to work as a huckster in the streets of Charleston cost ten dollars. Over the next thirty-five years, the price of a huckster’s license in urban Charleston varied from as low as five dollars a year to as high as three dollars a month as city authorities struggled to get the poor hucksters to comply with the license law. The license fee stabilized in 1905 at five dollars a year for “dealers in poultry, fish, vegetables, and fruit in the streets,” and remained at that price through the end of 1939. In 1940, the City of Charleston dropped the annual license to three dollars for “vegetable hucksters and fish vendors,” while simultaneous raising license fees for a variety of other vendors. The three-dollar huckster license—still using that ancient term—remained on the city’s books through at least 1975. By that time, the legion of street vendors had withered to just a few individuals, but the city retained the old license as a tacit acknowledgment of the trade’s long tradition in Charleston.
It occurred to me that I might be able to construct some estimates of the numbers of hucksters working on the streets of Charleston over time by plotting a graph of the number of annual badges and licenses sold each year. With such data in hand, we might be able to chart the growth of the trade, to identify the moment of peak huckstering in the city, and to document its decline in the twentieth century. I can now report, after several days of searching through various municipal records, that this task isn’t very realistic. Some of the historical data is now completely lost, and some is now held in archives that are not currently accessible. Some of the license data were recorded in an ambiguous manner that defies interpretation. More significantly, the available data reveals a long-term pattern of erratic compliance with the license laws. Many vendors simply avoiding paying the license fee until pressured by the police. Despite these research challenges, however, I managed to find a few facts that are worth sharing.
In 1883, for example, the city sold just two huckster licenses at five dollars each. In 1884, the city sold 198 monthly licenses at three dollars each, but that figure doesn’t tell us how many individuals purchased licenses and how many months each huckstered in the streets. In 1890, only two hucksters purchased a two-dollar monthly license, so the city dropped the price to one dollar per month in 1893. The following year (1894), the city sold 265 monthly huckster licenses, but again that figure doesn’t indicate the number of individuals or the duration of their seasonal work. The city government switched to annual huckster licenses in 1905, at which time ninety-nine permits were sold at five dollars each. That simple figure suggest that there were at least ninety-nine code-compliant street vendors hawking fish, fruit, vegetables, and cakes around the peninsular city, and an unknown number of rogue sellers. Here I expected the numbers to decline as the automobile-age dawned in early-twentieth-century Charleston, but I was wrong. The city sold 112 annual huckster licenses in 1910, and 190 licenses in 1916. The last year for which I’ve was able to find detailed financial records this week is 1922, at which time 161 hucksters purchased annual licenses to peddle food through the streets.
Although there were still robust numbers of hucksters selling food on the streets of Charleston in the 1920s, their presence was already something of an anachronism. The new food inspection laws enacted both locally and nationally in 1906 forced Americans to be more conscious of how their food was stored and handled. Charleston’s early food inspectors condemned many of the ambulatory hucksters—especially the seafood vendors pushing wooden wheelbarrows and open carts—as an unsanitary menace to local health. The proliferation of automobiles, home refrigeration, and grocery stores in the early twentieth century all contributed to the increasing irrelevance of the small-time street vendor. At the same moment, however, numerous visitors to Charleston were captivated by the street sellers and their Gullah cries of “Okreen tomottis!” “kya-kya-kya-kyabbidge!” “tuttle aigs!” “Yeh Pawgee! Yeddem! Yeddem!” “swimpy raw raw!” “inee black-bay [berry]?” and the like. Some of these colorful and musical vendors were “veritable marvels,” said one visitor in 1902. “So, why anybody here should want to make the huckster clear out is beyond my comprehension.” In response to this tourist fascination, the local newspaper conceded that huckstering “is an institution that has inspired many a voluminous communication to papers in other cities and of which strangers seem never to tire.”
Many locals were torn between their frustration with the howling street merchants and the growing realization that the hucksters represented an authentic part of Charleston’s cultural heritage. Charleston’s premier storyteller of the early twentieth century, John Bennett (1865–1956) attempted to reduce many of their improvised street cries to musical notation, as a means of preserving the odd melodies for posterity. Another local writer, Harriette Kershaw Leiding, published a few of these transcribed musical fragments in 1910 under the title Street Cries of an Old Southern City. There were still dozens of hucksters on the streets of Charleston in the early 1930s, but the trade’s vitality was clearly in decline. It was increasingly a quaint, fading enterprise tinged with a growing nostalgia for a Charleston of the past. The juxtaposition of foot peddlers on the streets of a modern city became a popular theme for many local artists, like Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (1883–1979), whose images of aged huckster women helped to memorialize a disappearing part of Charleston’s ancient charm.
The pinnacle of Charleston’s huckster history coincided with the twilight of that traditional trade near the middle of the twentieth century. Between March of 1934 and April of 1953, the City of Charleston hosted an annual “Azalea Festival” to attract tourists and celebrate local culture. A prominent feature of every festival was the annual huckster competition. Organized by white businessmen and attended by massive crowds of predominantly white citizens at Charleston’s White Point Garden, the annual competition featured black men and women shouting, singing, and rhyming for prizes in several different categories. Each year for nearly two decades, the city named best female huckster, loudest huckster, most musical huckster, best shrimp or fish huckster, best vegetable huckster, and best all-around huckster. The contestants, all professional street vendors dressed in their “authentic” costumes, took turns parading down a block of South Battery Street before a panel of distinguished white judges. Carrying their usual baskets or pushing their colorful carts, they cried their wares and delighted the crowds. For their efforts in reminding locals and visitors of Charleston’s curious old charms, the city awarded small cash prizes and ribbons to the various winners. The best all-around voice and personality received a bit of cash and a “handsome badge” proclaiming him “Champion Huckster of Charleston.”
It’s noteworthy that George Gershwin came to Charleston just a few months after the city’s first Azalea Festival to begin work on a musical adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s now-famous Porgy. The 1925 novel and 1927 play of the same name caught the attention of New York’s most popular songster, and Gershwin spent the summer of 1934 soaking up the sun and local inspiration for what became Porgy and Bess in 1935. Here the composer heard spirituals performed by both black and white singers, and witnessed a number of real Charleston hucksters plying their wares on the city streets. Gershwin transformed these experiences into musical elements that form part of the fabric of his famous opera. Near the beginning of Porgy and Bess, in Act I, Scene 1, the music sets the mood for audiences unfamiliar with the Southern city by introducing a cheerful huckster proclaiming “Here come de Honey Man!” In a quiet interlude in Act II, Scene 3, audiences hear the overlapping street cries of a melancholy “strawberry woman” and a boisterous “crab man.” Hucksters—brash, exotic, and anonymous—help establish the proper Charleston ambiance that has made Porgy and Bess such a perennial favorite.
By absorbing street hucksters into the nostalgic “romance” of modern Charleston, we run the risk of reducing them to a kind of stereotype that whitewashes the complexity of their legacy. The hucksters of Charleston’s past were not simply anonymous “maumas” and loud “darkeys,” as they were once called in our local press. They were real people with hopes and agency, just like you and me. It’s impossible to deny that hucksters form a colorful and interesting part of our local history, and I hope future research will help foster a better understanding of this topic and its participants. For the famous baritone huckster Joseph Cole (1840–1919), for example, hawking porgy fish was a stepping stone from slavery to freedom and a platform for thwarted political aspirations. For Rosa Lee Milton Moore (1895–1957) of James Island, who pushed a vegetable cart through the streets of Charleston for thirty-five years, huckstering and competing in the Azalea Festival provided the means to put two sons through college.
But huckstering is not dead and gone in modern Charleston. In fact, I would suggest that the business of selling food in the streets has continued in our community, without significant interruption, from the late seventeenth century to the present. The traditional practices certainly declined significantly during the second quarter of the twentieth century, but small numbers of street merchants selling things like peanuts, flowers, and ice cream persevered through the space-age to the present. Informed by a knowledge of huckstering history, we can see this continuity in the vendors pushing modern ice carts, palmetto rose artisans, and even the food trucks that bring complete meals to hipsters on the move. Their activities are licensed and highly regulated, of course, but even these regulatory aspects of the business represent the modern mutation of practices dating back to colonial times.
 Act No. 993, “An Act for a Fish Market; and for Preserving the Lamps in Charlestown,” ratified on 7 April 1770, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 9 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1841), 705–8; “An Ordinance for the uniform regulation and government of the Public Markets in the City of Charleston, for the adjustment of Weights and Measures in the said City, and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 6 May 1807, in Alexander Edwards, compiler, Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, Passed between the 24th of September 1804, and the 1st Day of September 1807. To Which is Annexed, a Selection of Certain Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature of the State of South-Carolina, Relating to the City of Charleston. Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1807), 432–53; [Charleston, S.C.] City Gazette, 16 October 1807: “Public Notice.”
 An abstract of “An Ordinance to amend the Ordinances regulating the Markets, and the Duties and Salaries of the Clerks,” ratified on 7 February 1842, appears in George B. Eckhard, compiler, A Digest of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Year 1783 to October 1844. To Which Are Annexed the Acts of the Legislature Which Relate Exclusively to the City of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.: Walker & Burke, 1844), 150, but I have not been able to find the full text of this ordinance. City Council repeatedly denied petitions to land fish at South Bay through the 1840s and 1850s. In a discussion of Moreland’s Wharf, at the south end of King Street, in August 1857, however, Mayor Miles observed “at present a very large portion of the fish brought to the city is landed at this point.” See the proceedings of the City Council meeting of 11 August 1857 in Charleston Mercury, 13 August 1857.
 “An Ordinance to regulate the crying of fish, shrimp, vegetables and other commodities in the streets of the City of Charleston,” was ratified at the City Council meeting of 11 September 1888; see Charleston News and Courier, 14 September 1888, page 3; the full text also appears in Charleston Year Book, 1888, page 133.
 See, for example, Charleston News and Courier, 31 July 1894, page 2, “‘Okreen Tommottis Bias!’”; News and Courier, 4 August 1895, page 3, “‘Okreen-Tommottis.”
 See, for example, News and Courier, 19 July 1896, page 3: “Anent a Howling Nuisance”; News and Courier, 28 July 1896, page 6, “Make them Shut Up”; News and Courier, 30 July 1896, page 8, “The Police and the Hucksters”; News and Courier, 23 August 1896, page 8, “Those Early Morning Yells”; News and Courier, 3 March 1897, page 5, “Anent Among the Hucksters”; News and Courier, 30 July 1897, page 8, “Will Make Them Shut Up”; Evening Post, 3 October 1903, page 1, “Police Department Wages War on the Hucksters.”
 “An Ordinance to Regulate Licenses, ratified on 6 January 1870; the full text appears in Charleston Daily News, 5 January 1870, page 3, column 3. This was not just a Charleston phenomenon. Every municipality in late nineteenth century South Carolina—including Beaufort, Columbia, Georgetown, Moultrieville, and Summerville—sold licenses to hucksters.
 The easiest way to track the city’s annual license fees, which were revised every December, is in the regular publication of official City Council proceedings in the local newspapers. They can also be found in the city’s annual Year Books, 1880–1951. The text of the city’s 1975 license ordinance appeared among the Proceedings of City Council published in Charleston Evening Post, 9 December 1974, page 10C.
 All of these figures appear in the annual statements of the city treasurer published in the City of Charleston’s annual Year Books, 1880–1922. The city continued to publish Year Books through 1951, but the treasurer’s annual reports are much abbreviated after 1922. After that date, more detailed reports might be found among the financial records currently housed at the City of Charleston’s Records Management Division.
 Charleston News and Courier, 7 September 1918, page 2, “Soda Fountains More Sanitary”; Charleston Evening Post, 30 June 1919, page 8, “Must Not ‘Huckster’ Fruit.”
 Charleston News and Courier, 28 July 1876, “Our Street Cries”; Charleston Sunday News, 5 February 1888, “About Fish and Fisherman”; News and Courier, 15 June 1889, page 8, “De One-Cent Kyaabbidge”; News and Courier, 14 August 1910, page 18, “The Older Charleston of Other Days”; Charleston Evening Post, 24 September 1902, page 5, “Street Vendor Interests Him.”
 Charleston Evening Post, 26 June 1900, page 2: “Charleston Negroes”; See the John Bennett Papers in the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society.
 The results of the first huckster competition were announced in Charleston News and Courier, 24 March 1934, page 10: “Fish Man Takes Huckster Prize,” and in similar annual stories through 1953. The Records of the Azalea Festival Committee, 1934–1953, are found in the Charleston Archive at the Charleston County Public Library.
 Charleston News and Courier, 1 September 1957, page 1C, “The Vanishing Huckster,” by Isabella G. Leland; News and Courier, 3 November 1963, page 3C, “Charleston’s Street Venders,” by Mary A. Sparkman; Stephanie E. Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 57, 83, 184–86.
 Charleston Evening Post, 8 March 1919, page 10: “A Quaint Character”; Charleston News and Courier, 25 October 1957, page 8B, “Prize-Winning Negro Huckster, Rosa Moore, Dies.”
 Charleston Evening Post, 22 November 1977, page 7A, “WSCI to Air Vendor Chants.” Huckstering is now classified as “peddling” or “vending” on the streets in the City of Charleston’s current code of ordinances. See Chapter 17, article V.