Yesteryear Street Peddlers of Old Havana

For decades in the 19th Century, street peddlers gave a peculiar image to Havana

By: Ciro Bianchi Ross


2007-10-05 | 13:33:56 EST

Serafín gave honor to his name. He was a seraphic man, unable to raise his voice in anger or doing anything harmful. Every night, from sunset to the early hours of the morning, he walked the emblematic Old Havana neighborhood of Colon with a billboard hung from his neck with a cord, offering merchandise to the prostitutes of the area. With him, Serafin carried all sorts of items, toiletries and items for personal hygiene – things that a working girl might need in at any given moment. A prostitute needing any of his goods would stand at the door of the brothel and scream the old man’s name at the top of her lungs. If Serafin was too far away and couldn’t hear her, somebody would let him know who was calling for him and what they wanted, and the old man would go there with his load. He would stop at the door of the brothel and make the sale. He had style: he never entered the brothels.

Serafín was an experienced peddler, and a specialized one, given the zone he worked. For decades in the 19th century, those street vendors —with their trinkets of thread balls, buttons, ribbons, etc.— gave a certain image to Havana. When they finally established themselves, they would open knickknack stores, where they would sale cheap but necessary products. These stores were set up in the living rooms of family homes and run by those families, who rendered their services without setting strict hours for lunchtime or closing. There was an undetermined number of these knickknack stores in any given neighborhood, which allowed a family to find whatever they might be looking for without going to a better stocked, yet more distant store.

Many of those home vendors, such as milkmen and bakers, had regular customers. There were cases where they had customers with subscriptions, like newspaper delivery boys, who made deliveries to their customers early in the morning – not at noon or the following day, like newspapers that are now delivered by mail carriers. Among the early morning vendors, and also having regular costumers, were the coalmen and the icemen. The iceman, for five cents, left on the porch a block of ice measuring 30 centimetres by 10, wrapped in newspaper. That block of ice inside an ice box, or wrapped in a jute bag, could last the greater part of a day. Those were the refrigerators of the poor.

Unlike the iceman, who used a truck to deliver his merchandise, the coalman used a wooden carriage pulled by a pair of mules. He sold the coal in bags, and among his offers he had a type of coal that was round. This one was preferred by cooks to maintain embers in cooking fires. It was a time in which people did not talk about the truck of the iceman or the carriage of the coalman, but of the carts of the iceman and coalman, and the cart of the trash man and the cart of the «owl,» who would carry the dead bodies of the needy to the graveyard.

In instalments

Those home vendors were not peddlers per se. Peddlers were those who went door to door or hawked from the street. Peddlers had something for everybody, or almost everybody. From ceiling and table lamps to silks and fabrics, jewels, curtains, liquids to kill cockroaches, disinfectant, and false dentures, as well as religious images and fine decorations. They had luck charms to frighten away bad spirits, guano brooms, root vegetables, fruits, chickens, fish, and candies. There were even graduated eyeglasses, because many optometrists who couldn’t get jobs with an optician or in a health center couldn’t find a way to make a living other than selling their services this way.

Arrangements for payment were laid out for everything. For more expensive items, the happy buyer would advance an initial down payment that covered the salesperson’s investment, and would later make affordable instalments of 25 to 50 cents a week, gradually becoming the true owner.

But not all could end up being so. Urged by necessity —buying in a moment of impulse or under the pressure of the salesperson, who was sometimes a true expert in the art of selling— sometimes the buyers couldn’t later come up with the 50 cents to make their payment. With the outstanding balance pending for that week, the salesperson, blue in the face, could do nothing but be resigned.

Their annoyance increased, however, when these unpaid instalments built up. They would resort to raising their voice and accentuating their gests without caring what neighbor witnessed the scene, while the less-than-happy debtor, dying with embarrassment, could only come up with excuses. The vender might return to claim his goods at the most unsuspected moment, threatening to call in the authorities. If it got to this point, things really got ugly.

Following embarrassment would come fear. «In this family nobody has ever stepped into a police’s station,» the formerly happy buyer would protest, now afraid. There was no alternative. The salesperson threatened to take back all of which had been partially paid for, and the buyer, demoralized, was beaten into retreat. In general, they would arrive at some kind of arrangement. What could the salesperson do with an already spotted curtain or with some graduated eyeglasses that would not serve anybody else?

At this point, sometimes an extra instalment would have to be added. No, he was not an ogre and he knew quite well what it was to be broke. But they had to learn: he too had a family and fixed costs that he had to cover. He would give the buy a break, extending the term and reducing the instalment from 50 cents to 40 cents a week. Things patched up, and back to being friends as always, with the vender there to serve if when the need again arises.

The egg seller is leaving

The mules that pulled the carts of many peddlers were adorned with feathers, flowers and ribbons. Bakers transported their sweets in very clean glass containers. The fisherman arrived with their products in a basket, and when customers selected a fish, he would clean and scale it right at their front door. Peanuts were always hot, as if they were just roasted, because the can in which they were carried had a kind of charcoal oven that kept them at the right temperature.

There were also those who, instead of selling goods, offered their services. That was the case of those who repaired bedsprings and sewing machines or made decorative balustrades and varnished pieces of furniture, or those who would sweep the tremendously high ceilings of some houses. Even though it might be difficult to imagine, there were travelling dentists in the countryside. There were also people who mowed grass, did the gardening and cleaned courtyards. Among the latter there is one whose memory has been kept alive in my mind. He was an elderly man; walked very upright, and always wore a straw hat. He had a machete tied to his belt and an Independence Veteran medal pinned to the left side of his guayabera. He was a mambí (a fighter in the Cuban War of Independence) who barely survived in the Republic he helped to establish.

Those travelling salesmen added sound to the city: the tamale seller with his spicy and regular tamales; the cracklings vendor; one that sold short bead cookies, calling out, «Short bread cookies, delicious and only for a penny... Short bread cookies, a delicious, temptation.» In the municipality of Vedado, the egg seller hawked «Peep, peep, peep, peep, the egg seller is leaving.» The sharpener played his small flute, making an unmistakable sound. The ice-cream sellers announced themselves with a bell.

Back then, there were no lollipops. Instead, there was a homemade candy called carioca. The carioca vendor pushed his cart, from which hung those candies and numbers of cans turned into containers. He said, «I swop cariocas for bottles!» His business was not only to sell new glass bottles, but to collect old ones for resale – making the carioca vendor a pioneers in recycling in own country.

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