New York’s old-school food trucks and carts

The whole food truck trend, with vendors selling everything from artisanal waffles to handmade geleto on the streets of New York? (Below, “hot Vienna waffles” on 22nd Street and Broadway.)


Been there done that, these vintage images remind us. Trying to make a buck by selling drinks and eats from a vehicle is probably as old a practice as the city itself. Hot corn, for example, was a big seller in the early 19th century.


Clams and oysters were also very popular street food through the 1800s. This clam vendor, on Mulberry Bend, must have a layer of ice on the bed of his wagon—how else could he keep his wares cold?


A “pop corn” vendor (“always hot”) attracts a well-dressed lady on Sixth Avenue and 15th Street in 1895. At the time, this stretch was the famed Ladies Mile shopping district of grand department stores.


The milk wagon has arrived on Park Row, this 1896 photo shows. “Pure Ice Cold Orange County Milk” is at the top of the menu, followed by fresh churned buttermilk and a milkshake—for a nickel.


Here, it’s 1937, the middle of the Depression, and under the Elevated tracks a peanut vendor takes a cigarette break.


This bundled-up seller appears to be selling pretzels out of a renovated baby carriage. The photo, from 1938, was taken on 14th Street and Broadway, ground zero for today’s food trucks and vendors.

[Top photo: Museum of the City of New York; second, NYC municipal archives; third, fourth, and fifth, Museum of the City of New York; sixth, Museum of the City of New York copyright Reginald Marsh]

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16 Responses to “New York’s old-school food trucks and carts”

  1. Florence Says:

    i remember the food carts from a later time on the Lower East Side when i was growing up pre-WWII. We bought hot corn, chestnuts, pretzels, sweet potatoes, hot chick peas, and all kinds of stuff from these carts. They were wonderful and the food was heavenly. The whole block carried the aroma of these wonderful goodies. I would love to see them again. The items cost pennies. I was one of their biggest customers whenever I got my hands on a couple of cents. They were not called venders and wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. They were peddlers, plain and simsple, some with licenses, some with not. My grandfther was one of them but he sold lettuce, carrots, melons (canteloupe and honey dew) through the seasons in a licensed spot on Avenue C between 5th and 6th Streets on the Lower East Side. I grew up with that pushcart. When I was little, I sat up on top eating away. Raw carrots peeled by my grandfather’s silver knife and canteloupe were my favorites. There were quite a few peddlers on Avenue C and my grandfather and his cronies kept a roaring fire going in a pail during the winter o they could have a semblance of warmth. They were friendly with the neighborhood store owners behind their pushcarts and they would go inside for some warmth and hot food. The peddlers were a tight bunch and helped each other. I was proud to be a member of the family.

    • Caroline Taylor Says:

      Thank you for your wonderful first-hand account, Florence! I’d love to have been there.

  2. Karen Seiger Says:

    These images are brilliant. The thing I really love about this story is that there is such a distinct thread from these street vendors to the modern food purveyors at Smorgasburg or Madison Square Eats, or any of the other food markets that are of the moment. They may have a new twist or new flavor, but they still make their own food and serve it up themselves to their hungry clientele.

    I think the main difference is that today’s food markets and food trucks serve as launching pads for food entrepreneurs. I have seen so many food businesses achieve success and build up a following in the markets and on the streets, and they end up opening their own restaurants or bakeries, or creating product lines for grocery stores or specialty food stores.

    This story shows that street and market food vendors are one of the threads that keep New York firmly connected to its roots. And as Florence says, the street food makers are still a tight bunch!

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Today’s food trucks are more entrepreneurial, that’s a good observation. It’s still hard work in a crowded field, though it helps that we’re in this foodie moment in our culture where DIY and creative eats are very popular.

    Florence, I’m enthralled by your memories of the peddlers and pushcarts on the LES, especially on Avenue C. Your grandfather’s silver knife peeling carrots and cantaloupe…it’s priceless.

  4. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    In the 1950s my mother used to take to Ave C where she did her shopping for that days meals. I recall stopping into chicken store, with live chickens, and my mother picking a chicken whose head was gonna get chopped off as we waited at the front for that days meal. The memory still makes me queazy.

    • Florence Says:

      I know how you felt. My mother took me to the live poultry market, too, and i went through just what you did. I finally got my way and wasn’t taken there anymore. I remember the queasy feeling. My mother used to pick the chicken and watch the process. UGH!!!

    • dcjuggler Says:

      My dad’s folks lived on 7th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C. I remember the pushcarts on Avenue C in the early 60s.

  5. Untapped Staff Picks: Woolworth Building Penthouse Will Ask A Record $110 Million, For Her Birthday, Marilyn Monroe’s 43 Homes | Untapped Cities Says:

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  6. Maggie's Farm Says:

    Dirty Water Dogs

    I’m not a huge fan of food truck food.  I know it’s all the rage, though.  Even movies are being made about them, trying to cash in on the obvious:  food truck popularity and James Gandolfino. I will grab at least one dirty water dog i…

  7. Upstate Ellen Says:

    Excellent photos and a very interesting post.

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  9. Maggie's Farm Says:

    Tuesday morning links

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  10. NYC Food Truck Association Says:

    Great piece and pictures! We’re sharing on our Facebook page tomorrow (6/24/14). =)

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    […] up near theaters. Fisherman sold them off boats on the rivers. Fancy oyster houses fed the wealthy. Vendors at curbside stands sold them on the cheap, often adhering to what was called the “Canal Street […]

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