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Voices Fall-Winter, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the reprint of “The Spiels of New York” by B. A. Botkin here.
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Volume 27

The Spiels of New York by B. A. Botkin

You have to hypnotize them in order to sell them, and it is either their will power or your will power which will triumph.

—Louie the Peeler to Maurice Zolotow

For O. Henry the "Voice of the City"—the "composite vocal message of massed humanity"—included such characteristic individual voices as the "shout of the press agent" and the hullabaloo of the strawberry vendor." Today the musical street cry has largely gone the way of the organ grinder and the German band. The "shout of the press agent" is still heard, louder than ever, not only among the publicity and ad men but among their oral equivalent, the sidewalk salesmen and barkers, whose tub-thumping patter is one of the best free shows in town and the latest thing in radio and TV commercials.
Do I ask a dollar? Do I ask fifty cents? Do I ask a quarter? No, gentlemen, ten cents, a dime, and it’s yours—ah, there’s a gentleman that wants one’thank you, Brother’here you are. (1)

Not for $10, not for a fin, not even for a single buck—but ladies and gen’mun, for the ridiculous sum of twenty-five cents—one quarter of a dollar—two thin dimes and a jit—25 kopeks. First come, first served—but hurry, hurry, hurry. (2)

Ladies and gentlemen, I have done everything but go into your home and put it on your hair every day for thirty days. Now, it’s up to you. If you’re tired of hair trouble, and you believe as I do that — — has the answer, step to your telephone now. Call the number you are about to hear. And if you don’t believe, or aren’t convinced, call the number anyhow. Because if it works, and it will, it’s certainly worth the price ... if it doesn’t, it has cost you nothing. (3)
The common term for the sidewalk or sideshow sales talk is spiel (German "play"); and a spieler, according to Webster, is "a speaker, especially one stationed outside a store or place of amusement to act as a crier." The more familiar term, and the parent type, is the barker, "a person who barks at an entrance to a show." ("Try your skill, folks. Step right up. Here y’ar, folks. Three balls for a dime. Try your skill, folks, step right up." (4) "Come in and see these gorgeous girls, come in and observe the human form in all its splendor and glory. Think of it, ladies and gentlemen, a whole family of French nudists for the price of a dime. You can’t go wrong. (5)

Nowadays the spiel is more closely identified with the pitchman, the peddler and demonstrator of small articles who sets up his pitch or temporary place of business at street corners, in five and tens, department store basements, auction-rooms, and at carnivals, circuses, penny arcades, fairs, and expositions. The connection of pitchmen and spiels with shows is not accidental. The pitchman is a showman as well as a salesman; his spiel and his routine are a performance and an entertainment as well as a puller-in’s come-on.

Maurice Zolotow traces the beginning of the modern American pitchman to George Covelle, who at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 sold by the thousands a dollar combination peeler, slicer, and vegetable cutter copied from a German importation. To be sure, there had been earlier pitchmen with medicine shows; but they relied heavily on music, dancing, and blackface minstrels. It was Covelle who first "showed that a fluent spieler with an interesting novelty item could attract attention and make sales" on his own. (6)

With Covelle, too, legitimate merchandise in the form of a useful gadget began to displace the medicine show’s Wizard or Kickapoo Indian snake oil and other nostrums. Even the modern med worker, with his herbs, psyllium seed, vitamins, and minerals, along with other peddlers of larry (phony or worthless) merchandise, is scorned by the kitchen-gadget man. In the words of Louie the Peeler: "I am selling a legitimate educational, and useful piece of merchandise here, which will gladden the heart and soul of every housewife and any lady who is near and dear to you." (7)

Still the "knights of the tripe and keister" have never shaken off their association with swindling and quackery. They have behind them a long line of fakers and mountebanks, Yankee peddlers and "Autolycan adventurers," wags and tricksters, liars and boasters, and they serve as a link between the world’s greatest showman (P.T. Barnum—"There’s a sucker born every minute") and Manhattan’s "greatest free show on earth" ("There’s a sucker for every neon on Broadway"—Louis Sobol). Amidst the hokum and honky-tonk of the Times Square area they are as much at home as on the country’s midways, and are, in fact, partly responsible for the carnival and Coney Island atmosphere of the "Big Drag." Not only do they have much in common with the pressure boys and "hucksters" and contribute, in their small way, to the legend of the grafters’ paradise, the "Wicked City," but most of them are actors at heart—even though not all of them succeed in being booked in to the Rainbow Room and Olsen and Johnson’s Sons O’ Fun, like the humatone pitchmen, Al Ganz and Al Meyers. (8)

Like all shrewd operators and exhibitionists they play to the crowd; and if they find the pickings richest where the crowds are thickest, it is because they are masters of crowd psychology and also because the New York City man in the street is a well-known pushover for gadgets and novelties, bargains and gimmicks. In the words of Jeff Peters, the "Gentle Grafter," "That’s what they call suckers here. They’re nothing but canned sardines, and all the bait you need to catch ’em is a pocketknife and a soda cracker."

(1) Morris Markey, Manhattan Reporter (New York, 1935), p. 294.
(2) Louis Sobol, Along the Broadway Beat (New York, 1951), pp. 171-172.
(3) "A Hair-Raising Tale," Script for Radio Electrical transcription, p. 9, Television Advertising Associates, New York. Used by special permission of Charles D. Kasher.
(4) Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson, Sodom by the Sea (Garden City, New York, 1941), p. 257.
(5) Ibid., p. 209.
(6) Never Whistle in a Dressing Room (New York, 1944), pp. 306-319.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.


Reprinted from the New York Folklore Quarterly IX(3), Autumn 1953.

Though we may not have realized it at the time, what we did in Living Lore was to effect a compromise between folklore as a creative expession and folklore as a cultural record.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Fall-Winter 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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