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‘Johnny Onions!’: Seasonal Pedlars from Brittany and their Good Reputation in Great Britain (1870s–1970s)

In: Journal of Migration History
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Abstract

The Onion Johnnies were a group of French seasonal migrants and door-to-door traders who travelled to Britain from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. This article explores their surprisingly good reputation among the British population and authorities: while pedlars were often conflated with tramps, suspicious aliens or disreputable individuals by the police, the Johnnies’ reliance on established familial and commercial networks meant they benefited from a positive stereotype. While hawking was generally perceived as an anachronistic and unrewarding occupation, French onion sellers were exoticised by the British population, who celebrated they rural roots. The seasonal, semi-sedentary and ‘picturesque’ aspect of the onion trade enabled them to reverse the stigmas associated to itinerant trading, their doorstep performance becoming their selling point. The case study of the Johnnies helps us understand the stereotypes linked to peddling in late modern Britain and to go beyond the narrative of decline surrounding this occupation.

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