- Consider the Oyster Seller:Street Hawkers and Gendered Stereotypes in Early Modern London
In a mid-eighteenth-century print, 'The Fair Oysterinda' stares out at the viewer (Fig. 1). Perhaps she is annoyed at the interruption. By her waist, she shucks oysters with skill; a slip of the blade risks a lethal cut. Or maybe her eyes are an invitation. Through the composition, the artist connects Oysterinda to the food she prepares: crinkled clothes and pale skin mirror rugged shells and silver flesh. Below, a short verse makes plain the printmaker's intention:
The Oysters good! The Nymph so fair!Who would not wish to taste her Ware?No need has she aloud to Cry 'emSince all who see her Face must buy 'em.1
The image was published by two members of a prominent print-selling family. John and Carrington Bowles were based in London's Cornhill and St Paul's churchyard, centres of the coarse, high-turnover end of the print market.2 Their customers bought a version of a well-known metropolitan character, the female oyster seller, an object of male sexual desire who blurs the roles of provisioner and prostitute.
Hester Lacke was more respectable. She sold oysters by the door of the White Horse Tavern on Friday Street, just south-east of St Paul's. In the 1620s, a rival challenged Lacke for her pitch. In support, Lacke's neighbours testified to her 'good and peaceable carriage there for the space of thirtye yeares'; the mayor's court ruled in her favour and the competitor was thrown off.3 Lacke was a small businesswoman rooted by family and community. In 1617, Hester Sherwin married Walter Lacke in Barking, Essex; in 1620, the couple had a daughter, named after her mother. In 1639, the older Hester was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Somerset, a street away from her long-time standing.4
Why was there a gulf between Hester Lacke and Oysterinda? How did working women become imagined as siren-like streetwalkers? These questions are hard to answer because, until recently, street sellers have not [End Page 1]
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received sustained attention from early modern historians. Food hawkers in London have played small parts in studies of poverty, nuisance and social panic. In these works, a typical street trader has emerged: a poor wife or widow, working several jobs on the fringes of urban society, among vagrants, prostitutes and beggars.5 Yet recent accounts of women's work have suggested hawking was a way to escape economic restrictions, forge occupational identities and compete with established male traders.6 Studies of towns and cities in continental Europe have shown how women retailers dealing outside formal markets and shops displayed entrepreneurship and ingenuity in a trade linked to this day with poverty and marginality.7
'The Fair Oysterinda' belonged to a European, multimedia genre with origins in the thirteenth century.8 The Cries, as they were known, depicted street characters in printed images, prose satires, elite poetry, ballads, and even music. Since the late nineteenth century, there has been an impulse to raid the Cries for direct evidence of past streets and their people.9 As cultural objects, the genre has been underestimated. Sean Shesgreen's detailed survey of the London Cries made little attempt to analyse them within the culture of the early modern capital.10 But, as Natasha Korda has argued, the Cries were shaped by contemporary attitudes, such as resentment of female traders, and became symbolic of broader tensions, such as illegitimate commercial activity.11 The Cries were deliberate constructions that bear the weight of complex interpretation.
This article compares the experience of women and men selling food on the streets with their representations. To do this, it focuses on one London trader who provided the raw ingredients for a particularly evocative character – the oyster seller. The article covers the period between 1600 and 1750, when the Cries coalesced as a genre and London underwent a series of dramatic transformations. The city's population surged, the...