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Deaf History - Deaf Peddlers

Embarrassing the Deaf Community

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Updated February 20, 2010

Cover of Deaf Peddler: Confessions of an Inside Man

Cover of Deaf Peddler: Confessions of an Inside Man

Photo Courtesy of PriceGrabber
One aspect of deaf history that will never be repeated, is that of deaf peddling. This activity, which usually involved deaf people selling alphabet cards on the street, was one that shamed the American deaf community and hurt the image of deaf people for years. Today, there are laws against deaf peddling. Even I have met deaf peddlers in my lifetime. I remember seeing one or two deaf peddlers at an outdoor mall, and one time spotting them at an airport.

History of Deaf Peddling

Many deaf people turned to peddling starting around the 1870s, because of inability to find suitable employment. Peddling peaked in the early 1950s as deaf people who had been employed during the war years lost their jobs. The image of deaf people was so badly damaged by deaf peddling that it took a concerted fight by the National Association of the Deaf and other deaf organizations, to bring an end to it. (It resurfaced briefly in the 1990s, as described in Deaf Slavery.) Deaf peddling was described in a book, "Deaf Peddler: Confessions of an Inside Man," by former deaf peddler Dennis Buck. Compare Prices Additional information on deaf peddling can be found in the book Deaf Heritage Compare Prices.

Pretend Deaf Peddlers

Sometimes hearing people would pretend to be deaf. Suspicious deaf people would sign to them to "test" to see if they were really deaf. One hearing person who pretended to be a deaf peddler was William Rockefeller, the father of John D. Rockefeller.

Deaf Peddling in Deaf Culture

Art and theater have both acknowledged deaf peddling. Susan Dupor did a diptych artwork, "Transportation Hub," that represents deaf peddling. The National Theatre of the Deaf had a performance, "Profile of a Deaf Peddler." Another play, "25 Cents," was available from now defunct The Tactile Mind website. A search on the Internet Archive found the author's name, Aaron Weir Kelstone, and a description: "Even though the old Deaf peddler warns his friend Brian otherwise, Brian stays around for his stories. Harry sees Brian with the peddler, whom he doesn't accept as a Deaf person. Their confrontation reveals different points of view on the peculiar institution of Deaf peddling. Age-old questions of pride and shame arise as they try to untangle themselves from cultural labels." Now out of print, this play is now a deaf collectible.
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