WHAT IS Cheap Jack

Cheap jack refers to a seller of inexpensive or inferior goods, frequently as a traveling salesperson. The term is also used as an adjective describing goods of an inferior quality.


Cheap jack is a colloquial term for a peddler or street vendor operating outside of the formal economy.

Seen throughout history of the exchange of goods, a cheap jack peddler is often seen as itinerant, making direct contact with potential customers as opposed to operating from a fixed, brick-and-mortar place of business. Such peddlers may operate as door-to-door salespeople or street vendors, particularly in urban environments and near formal markets, fairs and other commercial gatherings. From medieval times, regulations discouraging small-scale peddling have been passed into law, fueling pejorative perceptions of peddling associated with black markets and underground economies.

In some regions, nomadic populations such as the Romani of Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, also commonly known as gypsies, were able to establish an economic foothold through itinerant trading of goods. In addition to trading material goods, the Romani in particular sometimes also provided services as performers, healers and fortune tellers.

Cheap Jack Historical Perspectives

Peddlers have operated since antiquity. Biblical references to peddlers describe persons who spread the gospel for profit.

In urban areas during the Greco-Roman era, open-air markets were established to provide marketplaces accessible to the residents of a region. Peddlers filled in the gaps in distribution by selling to rural or geographically distant customers. In Greek, the term for peddling refers to small-scale merchant who profits by acting as a middleman between others.

In the middle ages, as rural towns began to flourish, peddlers would transport goods directly to homes, saving customers the inconvenience of traveling to markets or fairs, and peddlers would surcharge for this convenience. Despite the negative reputation, peddlers had an important impact on residents of geographically isolated locations, helping to connect remote towns and villages with with wider trading routes.

In the U.S., although the practices of peddling and street vending have ebbed and flowed, they have been in constant practice since the founding of the country. As the U.S. population began to increase in the 18th century, peddling increased until reaching a peak prior to the American Civil War, and as advances in transportation and production took hold during the Industrial Revolution, both the reputation and the need for itinerant merchants began to decline.

Nevertheless, during the 19th century and early 20th century, street vending was often the occupation of immigrant communities in urban areas. Some communities, such as the Arabber community in Baltimore, continue these traditions in the 21st century, and street vendors remain a common aspect of street fairs, concerts, sporting events and other public gatherings.