What Is a Cheap Jack?

The term "cheap Jack" (sometimes "cheapjack") refers to a seller of cheap or inferior quality goods. The person being referred to is often a traveling salesperson. The term is also sometimes used as an adjective describing goods of inferior quality or construction.

Key Takeaways

  • A cheapjack is a merchant or salesman who peddles cheap or poor-quality wares.
  • Often associated with certain traveling salesmen, the term cheapjack is mainly used as a colloquialism.
  • Traveling salespeople have been a staple of commerce throughout history and around the world, with people often casting a suspicious eye toward strangers and their products for sale.

Understanding the Term Cheap Jack

"Cheap Jack" and "cheapjack" are colloquial terms used to describe peddlers or street vendors operating outside of the formal economy. Existing throughout the history of the exchange of goods, a cheapjack 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, established 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.

The etymology of cheapjack uses "Jack" as a word for tradesman, just as in "jack of all trades" (where the person is typically master of none).

History of Cheapjacks

Peddlers of all sorts have operated since antiquity, with Biblical references describing people who spread the gospel for profit in addition to wares. In urban areas, during the Greco-Roman era, open-air markets were established to provide marketplaces accessible to a region's residents. Peddlers filled in the gaps in distribution by selling to rural or geographically distant customers. In Greek, the term "peddler" refers to a small-scale merchant who profits by acting as a middleman or dealer.

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 wider trading routes.

Although peddling and street vending practices have ebbed and flowed In the United States, they have existed 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. As advances in transportation and production took hold during the Industrial Revolution, both the reputation and the need for itinerant merchants began to decline.

Cheapjacks Today

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, while certainly not Cheapjacks necessarily, continue street vending traditions in the 21st century.

Street vendors remain a common aspect of street fairs, concerts, sporting events, and other public gatherings, and Cheapjacks can, unfortunately, still form a small percentage of the peddlers at these types of events.