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Updated 02/18/2020


John Cheap, the Chapman

A chapman (plural chapmen) was an itinerant dealer. The word was applied to hawkers of chapbooks, broadside ballads, and similar items. Produced cheaply, chapbooks were commonly small, paper-covered booklets, usually printed on a single sheet folded into books of 8, 12, 16 and 24 pages. They were often illustrated with crude woodcuts, which sometimes bore no relation to the text (much like today's stock photos), and were often read aloud to an audience. When illustrations were included in chapbooks, they were considered popular prints.

By 1600, the word chapman had come to be applied to an itinerant dealer in particular, but it remained in use for "customer, buyer" as well as "merchant" in the 17th and 18th centuries. The slang term for man, "chap" arose from the use of the abbreviated word to mean a customer, one with whom to bargain.

John Cheap was described as, a comical, short, thick fellow, with a broad face and a long nose; both lame and lazy, and sometimes lecherous among the lasses. He chose rather to sit idle than work at any time, as he was a hater of labour. No man needed offer him cheese and bread after he cursed he would not have it; for he would blush at bread and milk and hungry, as a beggar doth at a bawbee. He got the name of John Cheap, the Chapman, by selling twenty needles for a penny, and twa leather laces for a farthing.