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A Townful of Cries

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 1/20/2004

A Townful of Cries Transcript

Cries are phrases which, beginning in the 15th century, were called out in the streets by itinerant sellers of food and other commodities and by people offering their trades. They were especially prevalent in large towns and advertised for sale such diverse products and services as strawberries, fish, brooms, muffins, printed ballads and chimney sweeping. The criers were poor, and apparently loud and annoying. In 1711 Joseph Addison wrote an essay in The Spectator complaining of the noise at night and the loud, unpleasant manner in which the cries were uttered. “Milk” he writes “is generally sold in a note above high E, and in sounds so exceedingly shrill that it often sets our teeth an edge.”1

But the vendors were also quaint and colorful. Charles Shanly, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870, describes a woman selling tin products: “Yonder, flashing in the sun…slowly moves along a great assortment of tin utensils, ranging from the skillet of smallest size to pans and pails of the largest. The …colander is there, and the … dredging-box clinks against the teakettle….In the center of this dazzling arrangement walks a robust woman, the sun around which this system of tin planets revolves. She pauses very often, chanting her shrill cry of “tin-ware!”2

Printed collections of these cries began to appear in England in the 17th century in small chapbook-sized compilations and by the end of the next century several publishers of juvenile books were producing versions for children. They consisted of engravings of the various street sellers with their cries printed above the picture and a little poem printed below. The first title was Cries of London, which was so successful it was quickly followed by Cries of YorkCries of Banbury and eventually, Cries of New York. As with most publications for children, these books had a bit of gentle admonishment along with the pictures and rhymes. A little book entitled London Cries for Children, for example, includes a page for a vendor of gingerbread. Across the top is the cry: Hot spice Gingerbread, all hot! In the center of the page is a picture of the vendor with his basket and two boys ready to make a purchase, and below the illustration is a little poem: Here is spice-cake for those good boys / who better love their books than toys; and little girls may have their share / as often as they sew with care….3

Although most of the collections of cries were of poor quality with clumsy woodcuts or engravings, children’s publishers found a ready market for them, because they were cheap and within the financial reach of families who could not afford other types of reading and the children, used to more overt moral fare, surely found them cheerful and amusing.

1 Addison, Joseph.
2 Shanly, p. 203.
3 London Cries for Children, p. 17.

Addison, Joseph. The Spectator, No 251, 1711. from the Northwestern University, Department of English website:

Carpenter, Humphrey and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. p. 135.

London Cries for Children. Philadelphia: Johnson & Warner, 1810.

Shanly, Charles Dawson. “The Street-Cries of New York,” in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 25, No. 148, February 1870, p. 199-204.

Posted in Literature