Mudgett: Dickering

May 14, 2014

I don’t usually like reality TV, but I’m intrigued by the way a new reality show on the History Channel portrays regional culture. It follows a group of northern New England men who live to buy, sell, swap or trade - and the name of the show is Down East Dickering.

Uncle Henry's is a regional weekly paper that lists stuff for sale or trade, including odd jobs. Mainers like Tony, Clint, and Yummy - as well as a Vermonter named Turtle - pick up a copy of Uncle Henry's, find the best deals, and immediately make calls on their cell phones. There’s a sense of competition and racing the clock, since the first one to make a good offer to dismantle that old barn will get the job and the salvageable materials. The goal is to get something on the cheap and flip it for a profit - ideally without spending any cash.

In some ways they’re modern participants in an old New England custom long associated with men. During the 19th century, the Yankee sharper was a guy famous for driving a hard bargain, often while whittling.

He seemed too provincial to be shrewd, which was the secret to his success. As the country gradually shifted to a full cash economy, bartering and haggling persisted the longest in rural places like northern New England, where eventually even the locals came to see the most avid dickerers as comical throwbacks existing on the economic and cultural margins of society. In the words of one fictional Maine dickerer of the mid-19th century, “I went about town every day to see what chance I could find to trade off my ax handles, or hire out, or ... begin to seek my fortune.” What made that old Maine trader comical, and what set him apart, was that he was earnest but naïve, and hawked wares not always of the high quality he claimed.

Down East Dickering echoes that older economic marginalization: these guys trade, but their labor does not appear to be especially profitable. Still, they’re their own bosses, impressive recyclers, and the intensely local nature of what they do marks them as heroes of an imagined post-oil or anti-global sustainability.

Most of the media about the show has appeared in Maine papers. There are obvious comparisons to other reality shows that explore off-beat forms of labor, as well as questions about the authenticity of the Maine accents and colorful names, like Codfish, featured on the show. The most frequent critique, though, is that the show’s title is misleading, because today nearly everyone knows that Down East Maine strictly refers to geography along the northern Maine coast - not western Maine and certainly not Vermont. And that may be true today, but during the 19th century Americans commonly referred to the entire state of Maine, and even to New Hampshire or Vermont, as “down east.” How Down East geography gradually shrunk and shifted is a story for another time.