Friday, September 5, 2008

Street Sellers - Patterers

There is an old fashioned term to describe a person who is talkative and appears to be well versed in a particular subject - it is said that he has “all the patter.” I have heard the term for years, and wondered where and how this saying originated. Just recently, I found a reference to it in Henry Mayhew’s book titled Henry Mayhew’s London published in 1851.

Mayhew describes the word ‘patterer’ as slang for someone who speaks constantly. The individual is always a man (never a woman) who collects information on the street, and then prints that information on a sheet of paper to be sold on the street corners of London for half a penny. He would entice a passer by with the promise of some salacious information such as recent murder with all the gory details, robberies, attacks and other tragedies. Often the ‘stories’ were not verified and were simply heard third hand, then printed up ready for the evening edition. The curious and gullible individuals who bought the paper were perhaps left wishing they had purchased a better known newspaper instead.

During Victorian times 1850-1902, the news was printed on both sides of a large piece of paper that was nicknamed a “broadsheet” and was sold on street corners for one penny.

Mayhew also writes of sealed packets that were given away with the purchase of a straw and sold only to gentlemen not ladies. The literature contained in these packets was described as “unsavory” and could be off-color jokes, political songs, sketches or worse. The ruse known as “strawing” allowed the patterer to claim they sold only straws and not forbidden material. The purchaser (of course) would not know the contents of the packet until he had purchased the straw. In his book, Mayhew recounts an interview with a patterer. “It’s astonishing how few people ever complain of having been took in. It hurts their feelings to lose a halfpenny, but it hurts their pride too much, when they’re had, to grumble in public about it.”