I recently read a book about street cries, that is to say the old (fifteenth through nineteenth century) cries of London tradesman and merchants.
A lot of the book (it’s this one, Andrew White Tuer’s London Cries, later reprinted as Old London Street Cries and the Cries of Today, with Heaps of Quaint Cuts) was just taken up with example after example of the things people would yell to drum up business as they ambled down the street (“Buy a new almanack!” “Knives, combs, or inkhorns!”), which I’ll admit can grow tedious (see sample page below). But the book did make me stop and think about the number of old street cries preserved, not just in antiquarian chapbooks and Jacobean dramas (where Tuer gets them from), but in well-known texts I’d grown up with. None of these are particularly surprising—I mean, their status as street cries is all right there in the text and not concealed at all—but I hadn’t really put it together before that these were once real things that people used to shout in the cities.
Molly Malone’s “cockles and muscles alive, alive-o,” is probably the most famous example (Tuer does not list any analogous phrases, perhaps because hers is a Dublin, not London, cry), but there’s also “hot cross buns.” Tuer calls the lines
Hot cross buns!
“one of the best instances of English qualitative meter, being repeated in measured time, and not merely by the ordinary accent.” (He means that unlike most English verse, which operates by stresses, iambic pentameter-style, the hot cross buns jingle weighs a line that is technically trochaic tetrameter* (eight syllables) equally with a three-syllable line, just because each line takes the same amount of time to say, the slow spondee and a half of hot/cross/buns dragging itself at the same rate as four lilting trochaics.) You may have learned to play it on the recorder, but it’s a traditional Good Friday street cry from two centuries ago.
The third-tier Mother Goose rhyme “Old Chairs and Old Clothes” (still reprinted in the more thorough anthologies, and below) clearly comes from a street cry that Tuer includes and dates to a 1711 chapbook. And Blake’s chimney sweeper, crying “weep weep weep weep” is really crying a slurred rendition of “sweep sweep sweep sweep,” advertising his trade and not his misery (although of course both, because poetry).
(I realize that I stuck William Blake in with nursery rhymes, but precedent exists: This nineteenth-century Scottish Mother Goose collection contains two unattributed Blake poems mixed in alongside “Ride a Cock-Horse” and “Taffy Was a Welshman.”)
I associate cries now with carnivals (“step right up and try your luck!”), or probably with TV representations of carnivals, but I like the preservation in children’s rhymes and folk songs of a memory of these cries passing right beneath your window.
*Or, perhaps even more technically, for quantitative meter, a dimeter of primus paeons.