Criers and Vendors: Street Life in Nineteenth-century Naples

One of the characters featured in Cotsen 55086. But who is he and what’s on his head?

All rare books have something distinctive about them, whether they present a famous story in an unusual version, feature striking illustrations–often beautifully designed or rendered via a process that’s a feat of artistic skill or technological innovation – or have unique histories revealed by annotation, marginalia, reader markings, inscriptions or dedications by their author or some other person of note.

Can you tell a book by its cover? (Cotsen 52086)

Some rare books combine several of these aspects.  A case in point is this book of nineteenth-century street vendors whose cover  embodies the old saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover: here, an ordinary roan spine and marbled paper-covered boards, both somewhat the worse for wear.

This book lacks a title page and was quite possibly issued that way, as several other similar books of cries apparently were.  Based on the contents, bibliographer Karen F. Beall assigns the descriptive title “Neapolitan Street Cries.”1  Within the unprepossessing covers is a set of beautifully-rendered, hand-colored lithographs of an array of street vendors crying their wares in mid-nineteenth-century Naples. These provide a window into a kind of commercial activity quite remote to us today. Adding to the book’s interest is a noteworthy, if somewhat puzzling, inscription by the renowned English Victorian artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Hey, Mr Tambourine Man… Tambourine seller with his wares balanced on his head

This book is collection of illustrated plates and the only “text” is an Italian-language caption below each illustration.  For instance, the “mystery” illustration of the man with the elaborate headgear featured at the head of this blog posting is a tambourine seller, shown with a range of the instruments somehow balanced on his head and captioned “Tamburraro.”  A reader has penciled in an English-language version of the title — “dealer in tambourines” — as has been done on most other illustrations in the book.  Was someone practicing their Italian, or (I think more likely) translating the captions for a non-Italian reader?

Several other illustrations feature gravity-defying collections of objects balanced on vendors’ heads.  Take a look at the watermelon seller and the glass carafe vendor.

Glass Carafe Vendor

Watermelon Seller










Despite the wealth of apparently naturalistic detail, I have to think that art has enhanced life in these depictions.

The depictions of the Neapolitan vendors combine both men and women. Among the women are an egg merchant and a seat caner, the latter conducting her work not in a shop but right there in the street.  She has made herself comfortable for working by taking her shoes off; or perhaps that’s to aid in her work?

Egg Merchant, with her live supplier of eggs close at hand.

Caning seats with a supply of reeds readily at hand.










In an era of farmer’s markets and street fairs, we tend think of street vendors as people selling actual products.  But nineteenth-century street vendors provided services as well as products.  Suppose you were a tourist, just having arrived in Naples.  How would you buy things?  What sort of currency would you use, and where would you get it?  Probably from a local money changer like the one illustrated, who is depicted with a stern seriousness, or perhaps just with extreme concentration, as she counts out coins from one of the moneybags on her street-side desk.  The illustrator has also captured something of the role of a money changer at the time — a testament to skill and insight.)Likewise, the depiction of the public scribe in the midst of scrivening seems to capture something of the essence of the man at work, as he pauses in the middle of writing, perhaps somewhat absentmindedly, or perhaps in response to a client just out of view?  His expression, slightly grizzled face, and clothing — nineteenth-century business attire, but well worn, bordering on threadbare — all suggest a man who has seen better days.

Neapolitan sorbet seller

These days, it may be a little hard to imagine why anyone would be performing such a role in the first place.  But at a time when many people were illiterate, some literate but unable to write out a clear business letter or other grammatical, well-composed communication, and professionally-written letters in a clear hand were  needed for various reasons, professional scribes filled an important need.

Other characters depicted remind us of the pleasurable and entertainment aspects of Naples street vendors and performers. A sorbet seller — certainly not the friendliest-looking of the characters depicted! — holds up one his tiny cups of sorbet, apparently made for being enjoying while walking along the street. His other hand holds the ladle for the sorbet, placed within what looks like an ice-packed cooler. Next to him is a basket with a lot of little paper cups — apparently, he’s expecting good business!

Street theater featuring Pulcinella.

Although the “Pulcinella” street theater actor’s depiction looks a little less than comical, at least to my eye, Pulcinella was a much-loved stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.  The baggy white outfit, conical hat, and mask were all part of his standard appearance, as was some sort of a stick or cudgel, a horn-like version which he seems to be wielding here.

He’s related to the character of Punch in English Punch and Judy puppet shows, which were tremendously popular street theater in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England.  Pulcinella, like Punch, had aspects of the “all-licensed fool,” who could say and do outrageous things with impunity that members of the audience could not.  He would have been a fixture in Naples streets whenever street theater and street vendors were at work, and where shoppers or tourists were passing by.  A reader has captioned this illustration as “Punch & Judy,” an annotation that is not really accurate but quite understandable — and possibly a way of of contextualizing Pulcinella for an English reader?

The beautifully-rendered lithographed illustrations and the lost world they depict are reason enough, I think, to find this book interesting. Further interest — and at least one more question — is added by Rossetti’s gift inscription to his sister Maria on the book’s front free endpaper.  (The poet, Christina Rossetti was another, more famous, sister, whose work included children’s poetry.)

Inscribed: Dante C.G. Rossetti / to his sister Maria. 1837 1841.

Born in 1828, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a major Victorian artist, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, in 1848.  At the time of this inscription (either 1837 or 1841), Rossetti would still have been a school-boy. His father was Italian, and his mother was the English daughter of an Italian exile, so a childhood interest in Italy — and books about Italy — is no surprise.  But was is perplexing is why Rossetti changed the date of his gift inscription.  Did he first get the date wrong?  Unlikely, even for an otherworldly character such as Rossetti. Did he inscribe the book in 1837 and somehow forget to give it to his sister then?  Again, unlikely.  Did he write his name in his own book in 1837 and then decide to give it to Maria in 1841, inserting a gift inscription line and changing the date?  Possibly, but the ink and hand look remarkably the consistent throughout.  Or did Rossetti decide to give the book to Maria a second time in 1841 for some reason, and simply update the gift inscription?  That may be the most plausible explanation, as unusual as it sounds.  Perhaps there’s some other, better explanation, which has something to do with the relationship between Rossetti and his sister and their personal libraries?  Something to investigate, but for now, a puzzle of sorts about Cotsen’s unusual copy of this interesting title.

  1. Karen F. Beall, Kaufrufe und Straßenhändler: Eine Bibliographie  / Cries and Itinerant Trades: A Bibliography: Hauswedell & Co., Hamburg (p.346).

A Moving Panorama of London Cries Published by James Kirk in the mid-1700s

A few weeks ago when reading The Easter Gift published by John Newbery, I ran across the term “shews in boxes.”  Context made it clear that they were nice toys given as rewards to boys or girls for being on their best behavior.   My hunch was that the phrase was a synonym for “peep-shows.”   Certainly that’s the object referred to in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Magician’s Show Box” and Nathaniel’s “Fancy’s Show Box,” both of which were published in the early nineteenth century.  But during the eighteenth century, the term comprised another kind of novelty format–the moving panorama.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest use of “show box” in a newsy letter of September 5, 1748 from Lady Henrietta Luxborough to her good friend William Shenstone the poet.  She wrote, “As to your thought about improving the Show-box, I do not despise it for believing you took it from the thing called London Cries, which children play with.”  Might she have had in mind a toy like the one shown below, where a long engraved strip is wound around rollers inside a box, so that the pictures can be scrolled  past the viewer?  This show box of London street criers has been halted at the picture of an itinerant peep-show operator, with his equipment strapped on his back.


Cotsen 12683

These  toys were sold by James Kirk, an engraver who was one of the three sons of the medal and gem engraver John Kirk (there is some question as to his birth and death dates). Newspaper advertisements in the early 1750s indicate that pere Kirk, whose shop was located on the north side of St. Paul’s Church yard, went in with his son James, the proprietor of a toyshop, a stone’s throw away, to sell sets of money weights.  James was an enterprising entrepreneur in his own right, issuing tokens with pictures of the shop’s interior one side to promote the premises, which boasted a grotto and waterworks to enhance the shopping experience.  Like many eighteenth-century booksellers, or engravers, Kirk stocked sundries like Woodcock’s sticking plaster, an early type of Band Aid; this elaborate engraved advertisement is pasted down on the rear wrapper of one of his pamphlets of London cries.


Cotsen 153707

Kirk does not seem to have produced many juveniles, but he had a strategy to keep them fresh over the years.  His London cries has quite a complicated history, which I was able to pull together from a passel of newspaper advertisements, the three Kirk London cries show boxes, and one Kirk pamphlet of London cries in the Cotsen collection.  What it all shows is James Kirk liked to repackage the same content in three or more formats.

It  began in February 13, 1755 with an advertisement for four engraved prints, each with twelve different street criers redrawn from the celebrated prints of Marcellus Laroon.  The set of prints could be purchased for a shilling or in little three-penny pamphlets, each consisting of one sheet of  criers.  Below are the title page, the criers of green peas, writing ink and pens, and pins from one of the pamphlets in Cotsen.


Cotsen 153707


Cotsen 153707, leaf [2].


Cotsen 153707, leaf [10].


Cotsen 153707, leaf [11].

By February 7, 1756, Kirk was advertising the London cries in a new format: “made up in boxes, on Rollers. Very fit to amuse Children and help them forward their learning.”  Notice that he doesn’t call them show boxes or give a price.  In an advertisement the next week, a second show box repackaging a set of illustrated Aesop’s fables pamphlets was offered for sale at eight pence, which is not all that dear for what it was.

As detailed as the advertisements are, they don’t tell the whole story.  Examining individual copies reveals some variants the ads don’t mention. Two of Cotsen’s show boxes, 12683 and 30501, have the same sequence of street peddlers, but differ in  small details. The panoramas are printed on two paper stocks:  30501 is printed on faded blue paper, while 12683 is on the more usual ivory.  The illustrations in 12683 are hand-colored.  Booksellers and engravers normally advertise when a title is available in  plain and colored versions, so I wonder if 12683’s missing glass may have been removed at some point (and never replaced) so that  that the strip could be watercolored one image at a time without having to take it out of the box and off the rollers.  The water colorist was almost certainly no professional.


The various pigs the man is selling are not alive, but made of pastry. Cotsen 12683.

I couldn’t find any newspaper advertisements for Cotsen’s third specimen of a Kirk cries moving panorama. It’s hard to tell if it originally had a title page, but there is no doubt that it was produced from another plate, because it is an alphabet illustrated with a completely different set of criers printed on bluish paper.  It’s not in original condition: clumsy repairs on the box cover up the original Dutch gilt paper and flimsy little handles have been substituted for the round knobs on the bottom.  An old manuscript with calculations has been cut up to reattach the left hand edge of the strip to the roller.


Moving panorama of an alphabet of London cries. Cotsen 425.

If only an antiquarian bookseller would quote Cotsen the fourth manifestation of Kirk’s London cries–the “pastime cards”  advertised March 26 1757 nicely colored for  5 shillings a deck, a good deal more than the show boxes…  I’ve not succeeded in finding any reproductions of cards in the cries set, but am guessing that they would have looked something like the Aesop cards below.


Surely Kirk had to engrave new plates in order to insert the symbols differentiating the court and pips cards, but forty-eight of the fifty-two street criers could have been redrawn from the original set of cries plates.  If the alphabet moving panorama was published by 1757, then there was no need to draw any new figures (see the addenda at the end for all the peddlers found in the Kirks in Cotsen).

It’s unlikely that James Kirk invented the miniature moving panorama, but the format has had a long life: Cotsen has almost two dozen later examples of this novelty format.  Kirk’s modest little animations of the “moving market” on the streets of London appeared decades before the advent of huge ones that were among the most popular public entertainments of  the  nineteenth century.

Who knows if the inventors of these more elaborate examples were inspired by toys like these?  There’s room for just two favorite examples from the 1800s.  Here’s S. and J. Fuller’s The Grimacer (ca. 1820?) The top strip  moves across the box vertically and the bottom strip horizontally, so that the heads and torsos of the figures can be amusingly mismatched.  You can see the rollers’ knobs on the bottom and the right hand side of the box.


Cotsen 811


Cotsen 811.

The second example shows the animals entering Noah’s ark, which the publisher Betts manufactured in a small and a large version (this is the large one).  The strip is contained in a wooden box attached to the underside of the panel and passes through slots on the left and right of the background on its upper side.  To advance the strip, someone must stand behind the entire apparatus and turn the concealed handles.


Addenda: The Peddlers Represented in the Kirk London Cries

The contents of three of the four plates can be reconstructed from the surviving examples.  To save space, only the product, not the cry has been transcribed.

Plate A (Cryes of London pamphlet: Cotsen 153707)

1. green peas, 2. white-heart onions 3. small coal 4. Seville oranges and lemons, 5. ballads, 6. cherries, 7. song birds, 8. eels, 9. ink and writing pens, 10. pins, 11. herrings, 12. almanacs

Plate B (Cryes of London pamphlet: Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington)

1.Waltho Van Clutterbanck 2.potatoes 3.cotton laces 4. Past twelve o’clock 5. brooms 6. matches 7. sweetheart cakes 8. shrimps 9. bellows 10. periwinkles 11. crab 12.???

Plate C (Moving panorama: Cotsen 30501 and 12683)

1.Mutton or eel pie 2. hot gray peas 3. lines 4. raree show 5. gudgeons 6. long tail pig pastries 7. whiting 8. Holloway cheese cake 9. Scotch cloth 10. gingerbread 11. poor prisoner 12. mops

Peddlers in the alphabet moving panorama (Cotsen 425)

  1. AB walnuts 2. CD old clothes 3. EF Italian flowers 4. GH rabbits 5. IJ milk curds and whey 6. KL door mats 7. MN fresh salad 8. OP pickling cucumbers 9. QR Yorkshire lemon cakes 10. ST strawberries 11. UV kitchen stuff 12. YWZX [sic] chairs to mend

In preparing this post, I drew on Sheila O’Connell’s London 1753, British Map Engravers by Laurence Worms and Ashley Bayton-Williams, Karen Beall’s Kaufrufe und Strassenhandler, and Sean Shesgreen’s Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London.