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The Forgotten Entrepreneurs: New York City’s Irish Immigrant Peddlers in the Nineteenth Century Open Access Deposited

How should we view the Irish who emigrated to America in the nineteenth century, and what can they tell us about immigrant entrepreneurship? Historians have traditionally viewed the transplants from Ireland as beggarly and desperate, but recent scholarships challenge this claim by looking at these immigrants’ deposit records. Although new studies reveal the surprisingly large savings of Irish-born manual laborers, they largely overlook the experience of immigrant peddlers. This paper traces the business activities of New York City’s Irish hawkers by examining banking data, census records, and newspaper accounts from the 1840s to the 1870s. It finds that the peddlers from Ireland were savvy entrepreneurs who enjoyed financial success and upward mobility. They developed creative ways to build inventories and sell goods across the city and the US. Some of them also accumulated handsome sums in the bank and moved on to more rewarding and respectable careers. The forgotten saga of the hawkers affirms that America was a land of opportunities for many Irish, but it also highlights how the country’s immigration policy, as well as the possibilities for immigrants, has changed since the nineteenth century.

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