Before Instacart and AmazonFresh, there were Huckster Wagons

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An early horse-drawn huckster wagon.

The web is rapidly changing how consumers get their weekly groceries. Online and app grocery delivery services are taking share away from traditional brick and mortar grocery stores.   This, at a time, when the largest Kroger retail store – larger than most Walmarts – opened less than a year ago in Oakley, on the site of a former machine tool factory.   Traditional supermarkets are biting back, offering store-supported delivery services.   Kroger has an app called Clicklist.

Actually, home delivery is nothing new. In fact, it’s where it all started, and like a big wagon wheel, we’re reverting back to our earlier days.   Only, today it’s with the help of technology.

Long before supermarkets and Walmarts there were hucksters.     These were men who peddled groceries door to door on a daily basis, fresh from the farm.     They were the mediator between the customer and the farmer.   They knew the customer’s needs, had a regular route, and offered value to the farmer who didn’t have to peddle.

Unlike the pushcart vendors in large cities – like the bagel peddler or the saurkraut peddler of New York city – hucksters carred a large variety of items.

There are still huckster ‘chuck wagons’ as we used to call them, when I worked at a chemical plant near Ivorydale.   That was because the plant didn’t have its own cafeteria.   So, the huckster would pull up with his heated and refrigerated truck to all the plants along Mitchell Avenue near Ivorydale, and sell egg burritos and the like for breakfast and come back with burgers and sandwiches for lunch.   It’s along the lines of the modern food truck concept, only there’s more variety, and they’re prepared, rather than cooked on site or to order. They’re also mobile and service a route, like the old grocery hucksters.

Some hucksters were based out of stores in town. Customers paid cash, bought on credit, or traded butter, eggs, or chickens for goods.

The huckster was a kind of consolidator of produce and poultry.   He collected in bulk from a number of small suppliers.     He even consolidated items country children foraged from the forest like mushrooms and ginseng or even rabbits.   Good hucksters carried anything that might be found in a country grocery store. And, they carried wishlists from their customers so that whenever they came in contact, they could buy or trade for that item.   Some hucksters stopped by country schoolhouses on their routes to sell snacks to the kids, who pooled their money to buy cookies.

Huckster routes existed locally as far back as the time of the Civil War.   An ancestor of mine, John Flora, was a huckster during that time.     He had his own horse-driven truck and would collect chickens from his Campbell County, Kentucky, farm neighbors, dress them, and transport them to the Cincinnati markets downtown.   Sometimes a huckster would also pick up other dry goods from the city for his farm neighbors, like a modern day Amazon. My guy, Mr. Flora, would transport church books for his local Carthage Methodist Church from the Methodist Book warehouse on Pike Street in Cincinnati, during his normal huckster route.

As motorized transportation became common, hucksters travelled even deeper into rural areas of Kentucky, often using Cincinnati-made Armleder and Schacht trucks with chain drives. Huckstering was especially important during the rationing of gasoline during World War II, which made rural people less mobile.     The practice of huckstering basically continued locally up into the 1950s, right about the time when supermarkets took off, and that became the preferred mode of shopping. Those small farmers who were formerly dependent upon the huckster used farmers markets to make up for the loss of the huckster convenience to them.

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A 1930s era huckster.

We still have huckster-like home delivery and farmers markets, but now you can follow your vendors on Facebook and Twitter to know where and when they’ll be and what they’re carrying!

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