Searching for materials in archival collections means, at times, trying to figure out how the people of the past would have labeled their photos, named their articles, or categorized their artifacts. They didn’t always use the same terms we would now. For this Black History Month, we examine William Taylor and how he illustrates the challenges we sometimes face when we’re trying to research the experiences of prior generations.
A tradition of longstanding at Princeton University ended in 1949. Last year, we told you about James “Jimmy Stink” Collins Johnson, a fugitive slave who went into business for himself on the College of New Jersey (Princeton) campus after abolitionist-minded townspeople and students helped him buy his freedom. Johnson sold snacks and drinks from a cart he pushed around campus. In his later years, Johnson took an apprentice named A. C. Seruby and nicknamed “Spader”, who sold peanuts from a large bag while wearing a top hat, an ascot, and a cutaway jacket. As the third and last African American campus vendor among the salesmen who have pushed carts around Princeton, William Taylor had the longest tenure, from 1904-1949. Taylor’s death on March 26, 1949 was a blow to the community. A local newspaper, Town Topics, wrote that “When he went, Princeton became a smaller town.”
Taylor came to Princeton from Leesburg, Virginia, having decided he wanted to abandon the life of a servant to wealthy white Southerners to go into business for himself around age 30. During the school year, Taylor worked 16 to 18 hours per day, selling hot dogs and other refreshments from a wheeled cart dubbed the “doggie wagon” that he usually parked on Nassau Street or University Place. For athletic events or anything that drew a crowd, Taylor was sure to be there; he once claimed to have sold hot dogs to a mob during an undergraduate riot, and when Lake Carnegie froze over and attracted skaters, Taylor’s cart sold coffee to ward off the chill. During World War II, Taylor passed hot dogs through a fence for the Navy when they were on duty.
A neighbor’s Irish setter, perhaps drawn by the smell of his wares, became Taylor’s constant companion at work, only going home when Taylor did. When the setter’s owner passed away, she left “Rory” to Taylor. It seemed that most were fond of Taylor, and the community’s fondness for Taylor appears to have been mutual. He reportedly had “a deep, inherent faith in the honesty of undergraduates” that might have led some to take advantage of him, but claimed no one did. He would let anyone who didn’t have money on hand just pay whenever he or she did, without keeping any records of who owed what.
By all accounts, Taylor’s was a lucrative business, one that afforded him a comfortable life when most African American residents of Princeton struggled in the town’s overcrowded slums. The Princetonian mused that he made “a good living, has faith in humanity, and what more could anyone want?” Though Taylor worked long hours in Princeton, he took his share of vacations, too. For most U.S. presidential inaugurations, Taylor went to Washington to observe the ceremonies. He and his wife spent their summers in Leesburg.
You won’t typically find Taylor referred to by name in the materials in our collections, just as one finds references to James Johnson most often under the undergraduate nickname for him, “Jimmy Stink.” Taylor was known for his entire 45-year career as the “Jigger-man” or simply “Jigger.” In fact, the Daily Princetonian encouraged readers not to bother with his name in favor of this nickname. When Taylor’s name does appear, it is unfailingly followed by something like the parenthetical captions penciled on the backs of the photos you see in this post—“(Jiggerman)”. It is by this term that he was known far beyond Princeton as well. Coca-cola featured Taylor as the “jiggerman” in a 1930 ad campaign for a national audience. To find all that we have on Taylor, then, means that searches of our resources must include the name the early twentieth century’s Princetonians gave him.
Though a “jigger” may be a small hand-car, like Taylor’s “doggie wagon,” this nickname is more likely a reference to Taylor’s race, or at minimum some sort of double entendre that encompasses both the cart and the man who owned it. This was a slur generally viewed as slightly more polite than the one with which it rhymes—which is not to say that Princetonians didn’t use that one, too, though one sees it infrequently in written records. That the records also frequently quote Taylor in dialect, in a way they do not with white Southerners who presumably had noticeable accents as well, reinforces their emphasis on Taylor’s race.
Preserving these kinds of records gives us frequent reminders that Princeton was not always as we would have wished it to have been. This also means, at times, we must enter search terms we would not otherwise employ, and that the results might limit what we can learn. What we know about William Taylor is the story the community that called him “Jigger” told. We don’t know what he thought of the name, or even if anyone ever asked his opinion on it. If anyone has information on other accounts of Taylor’s time in Princeton, please contact us.
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067)
Nassau Sovereign (March 1948)