Food and Clothing: Street-sellers and Economy – Joe Woods

Street sellers were an intrinsic part of the Victorian slum, particularly in London. There were an estimated 30,000 street sellers on the streets of London in the late 1800s.1 This was when Henry Mayhew published his work London Labour and the London Poor, which brought insight into slum life. Street-sellers were responsible for supplying slum inhabitants as well as some working-class and middle-class people with a range of items such as food, clothing, stationary and miscellaneous goods, for example, old cooking ware. Street-sellers were often referred to as ‘Costermongers’ or ‘Patterers’ depending on their method of practice and usually their race.2 According to Henry Mayhew, Costermongers were more often than not Irish and did not associate themselves with many people outside of the Costermonger social circle. The Patterers regarded themselves as the ‘aristocracy’ of the street-sellers, and were known to regard the Costermongers as ignorant and less intelligent than themselves.3 Street-sellers were sometimes also street-performers; singing songs or perhaps presenting a puppet show such as Punch and Judy.

 The image here of the Coster boy selling bird’s nests is a daguerreotype, which was a nineteenth century technology that reproduced photographs as engravings. This tells us that this is likely to be a genuine image rather than a drawing or sketch, meaning that the audience can be fairly sure of the street-seller’s appearance. However, due to the fact that a daguerreotype is an engraving from a photograph, it would be very possible for certain details to be accentuated or added to the engraving. This particular image is clearly a ‘Costermonger’ as opposed to a ‘patterer’, judging by his lack of shoes and patchwork clothing, as this would show he was not considered one of the ‘aristocracy of the street-sellers’.4

Mayhew is often accused of having a Dickensian perspective of the slums. This could be supported by the appearance of those he chose to interview, as many of them, such as this image of the Costermonger, look poignantly archetypical. The Costermonger pictured envokes more emotion and stimulates the imagination more so than a less disheveled street-seller would have. Also any questions he may have asked them were not included in his work, making it harder to discern the true personality of those Mayhew interviewed.

The costermonger pictured is selling bird’s nests for the eggs inside. Just one example of the many ways in which street-sellers would support the community inside the slums with their work. The selling of food and drink on the streets of London. Many different types of fruits and vegetables would be sold to any who walked by, as well as occasional speciality items such as liqueurs. Additionally, sometimes medicines such as peppermint water would be sold.

The street-sellers of London were a distinctive and intrinsic part of slum economy. Although they were the chief distributors of produced materials, there was no regulation or control of street-sellers’ exchanges. Additionally, Costermongers in particular were known to despise authority and their distaste of such was shown through their battles with the police. They were integral to the ‘social body’5, yet they damaged it in the process of helping it. As Mayhew describes it, this ‘body,’ is ‘nourished at the expense of the mind’.6

Due to depictions of the slum such as those of Henry Mayhew and Thomas Malthus, the Costermonger came to be known as a parasitic creature that was impossible to control or remove. The clothes of the Costermonger pictured can provide insight into how their identity of a lowly parasite was formed. For example, the Costermonger is not wearing shoes and his clothes appear to be a patchwork amalgam of different pieces of clothing. This would seem to the nineteenth-century middle and upper-classes as unruly and unattractive, especially as his feet and ankles are exposed, which was seen as unsightly and somewhat disrespectful. Both the Costermonger’s appearance and the nature of his profession were presented as detestable and parasitic.

Despite the Dickensian representation of Costermongers by Mayhew and Malthus, these people worked extremely restless days in order to support themselves or their family. Coster boys arose at 4am in the summer and no later than 6am in the winter.7 Many of the street-sellers would begin from such a young age that they had no concept of childhood, as their lives were consumed with work. Also, due to the fact that there were so many of these street-sellers selling relatively similar goods, there was no way to control the flow of trade, or standard of traded goods. This created a very unstable economy, resulting in many street-sellers struggling severely, as they were unable to compete with the standard and prices of other sellers.8 This profession was both the slum’s livelihood, yet also its downfall, as it sapped order and regulation from the exchange of necessary goods.

It was the sale of necessary goods such as food and clothing which defined street-sellers. The Costers were equally recognised for their destructive and disruptive capabilities as they were for their nourishment and material upkeep of slum society. They lived in dichotomy of nourishment and deterioration of the slums, working hard to help themselves and those around them, whilst hurting so many in the process.

 Joe Woods


1 Picard, Liza, ‘The Working Classes and the Poor’ (Date not specified) Available online: Date Accessed: 15 Nov 2015.
2 Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor (London: George Woodfall and Son, 1851) p. 20.
3 Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, p. 8.
4 Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, p. 8.
5 Gallagher, Catherine; Laqueur, Thomas, (eds.) The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century (London: University of California Press, 1987), p. 100.
6 Gallagher and Laqueur,The Making of the Modern Body, p. 100.
7 Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, p. 40.
8 Gallagher and Laqueur, The Making of the Modern Body, p. 101.