The word “faker” here doesn’t mean a person who pretends to do something. It means a street vendor who sells meaningless trinkets. We still have them around town, hawking cheap souvenirs and toys. A man named Mr. Cunningham ran a novelty shop on Ann Street in 1910, and he hired fakers to hawk his wares:
“If a faker hasn’t got some smartness about him, he’ll be pushed out of the business quick. You see, a faker’s not like a peddler, not at all! Your peddler sells things that there’s a demand for, like shoestrings.
“Now people always needed shoestrings. They were on the market 300 years before Christ was born. [Upon reflection it rather seems as if Mr. Cunningham’s enthusiasm got the better of his judgment here.]
“But a faker hands things to the public that really aren’t wanted. He doesn’t supply a demand. He creates it. Nobody needs a little dog with a spring tail, for instance, and yet these dogs are the most popular things on the street today.”
As he spoke Mr. Cunningham held up a creation about as big as your hand, with very stiff legs and a melancholy expression.
“Pull its tail,” said Mr. Cunningham in an awed tone.
The reporter pulled. The tail, being a spring one, kept on vibrating after the pulling had stopped.
“That dog,” said Mr. Cunningham in a slow, solemn undertone, “has made a fortune for its inventor. A fortune! It’s selling like hot cakes.”
We all gazed with admiration at the dog for about five minutes, after which Mr. Cunningham heaved a sigh and reverently deposited him in his box again.
The best fakers were good showmen. One of them reckons he could have been a vaudevillian. They worked their own hours, and some of them made an excellent living.
Here’s a bit more from the article:
“Badges and buttons are the staples… But the real sport of the trade is in selling novelties. What’s a novelty? Ah, anything new that anybody thinks up.”
The angry mother-in-law is a scream. It comes in a small box and consists of two beads and two pieces of rubber. You make a fist of your hand, stick the two beads at the top, the long piece of rubber in the middle in a vertical position and the short piece of rubber at the bottom in a horizontal position. Then you tie a handkerchief about the whole and wriggle your fingers.
The result is really killingly funny. The beads are eyes, the piece of rubber in the center is a nose, the piece of rubber at the bottom is a mouth, the handkerchief is hair, and the whole effect, without using much imagination, either, is that of an awfully ugly old woman who’s making faces.
You can’t help laughing as you look at it. The little brown dog seems rather inadequate considering the burst of enthusiasm it has aroused, but the angry mother-in-law is really funny.
“To see Maggie work that mother-in-law!” exclaimed Mr. Cunningham.
“Who’s Maggie?” asked the reporter.
“What! You don’t know Maggie, the belle of the trade? Maggie, the fly king? Maggie’s as well known in Wall Street as Pierpont Morgan. He’s as clever a man as there is in New York City.”
“Yes, every one knows that Mr. Morgan is –“
“No, no. I mean Maggie. Maggie, short for Mary Ellen, nickname for Edward Joseph!”
Maggie, it appears, is a gentleman about 50 years of age, who weighs 250 pounds, hasn’t a tooth in his head, and is known from the Bronx to the Battery for his fun and cleverness. Just for the sake of curiosity, the reporter asked a policeman on Broadway, a newsboy on Fourteenth Street, a postal card man on Fifth Avenue, and a broker in Wall Street if they’d ever met Maggie. They all broke into an irrepressible grin at the sound of the name, and said of course they had.
There is a story that one day when Maggie was feeling particularly “smart and sassy,” he induced Mr. Russell Sage to buy a tin doll that turned somersaults. Maggie considers this day the high water mark of his career.
These fakers sound far more interesting than the street peddlers we have today, although we do still have some genuine characters. I’m reminded of Joe Ades, who sold his vegetable peeler in Union Square until he died last year at 76. His product was more useful than these trinkets, but he kept up the tradition of being a street salesman who was also a showman.
STREET FAKER KING TELLS SOME TRICKS OF THE TRADE: Cunningham of Ann Street Introduces Sporting John Mack, Provider of Literature; Maggie the Fly King, and Others. (PDF)
From September 25, 1910