by Larry Brill
It came to me in a flash of inspiration.
Late at night and unable to sleep I opened a book, Infamous Scribblers, about the wordsmiths and rabble-rousers that were our first journalists in America. Since too many Americans are only vaguely aware that there were a few significant developments in history between the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, the author, Eric Burns, started with the obligatory chapter tracing journalism in this country back to its roots in England.
As someone who spent 25 years at a news anchor desk, I knew immediately there was a story there. From that moment, the Patterer became my personal hero.
The rise of the patterer coincided with Britain’s industrial revolution; both gained steam through the first half of the 18th century. By the end of the century, both were running like the well-oiled machines that were turning England into an industrial marvel and global powerhouse. This was also in an age when literacy was on the rise and the number of newspapers in England grew from a smattering when The Daily Courant was launched in 1702, to more than 50 in London by 1776.
London streets were teeming with costermongers back then, vendors who sold anything and everything from their carts, their tables, their haversacks or even their pockets.
Fish and poultry? “Got you covered, Sir.”
Rings and buckles? “Yes Ma’am, step right up.”
Cough drops and elixirs? “Guaranteed, Doctor Maximucel’s potion right here will cure anything that ails ya.”
Many costermongers used their strong lungs, shouting and competing with one another amid the loud and chaotic din on those crowded London streets, in order to sell their wares. And those streets were unquestionably a crowded and noisy place to do business.
“Fresh Fruit. Vegetables and tobacco. Get them here.”
“Oy! Oy, razors. Knives. Sharpen your blade sir, three shilling an’ a half.”
Some started taking the role of common street barker a step further by using interesting stories or jokes to engage passers-by. They might sing or juggle. Or they might, as one 18th century citizen observed, “help off their wares by pompous speeches, in which little regard is paid either to truth or propriety.” Those costermongers would perform with whatever skill they had to steal the attention of potential customers.
Ah, but the “patterers,” the street sellers of news and information, well, they were the elite of their class, and more often than not, looked down their noses at the other costermongers. It was the cachet of having a product for the mind and not the hands.
“We are the haristocracy of the streets.”
The “standing patterer” was no less prone to embellishing a good murder or scandal in ways that would make even today’s most jaded tabloids cringe. But he had an advantage that allowed him to rely less on sensational details in his stories and more on his imagination and an entertaining delivery. Because he had the luxury of engaging and holding the audience he drew to his corner, he offered a longer, higher quality of storytelling that may have lacked the shock and awe of his running counterpart but was no less compelling.
He would set up on the corners of thoroughfares and use a large placard on a pole with drawings depicting the terrors a reader might find in the newspaper and pamphlets he had to sell. And here we are, more than two hundred years later, using computer-generated graphics on the TV screen to do the same thing.
It was their education, formal or informal, that separated the elite patterers from the rest of the street sellers. They were the “brainy” ones making a living on the street.
"People don't pay us for what we gives 'em, but only to hear us talk. We live like yourself, sir, by the hexercise of our hintellects - we by talking, and you by writing.”
They dressed better than your average costermonger on the street. Mayhew reports that patterers took pride in their looks, probably because it was good for business. He wrote that in dress and appearance, they presented little difference from the “gent.”
The patterer actually advanced and fed the public’s appetite for news. Patterers pitched and sold newspapers and magazines for the growing body of middle class readers. They entertained and informed the illiterate with enough detail that both could share a table at the pub and carry on reasonable dialogue about current affairs. And so it was, in the end, literacy and the masses’ ability to read that killed off the patterer.
Two hundred years hence, he’s back. The patterer has been resurrected by technology and transported right into our living rooms night after night through the magic box we call television.