Campus Vendors at Princeton

A longstanding tradition at Princeton University ended in 1949 with the death of William Taylor, the last independent black vendor earning his living selling refreshments to students. The first was James Collins Johnson, a fugitive slave who went into business for himself on the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) campus after antislavery townspeople and students helped him buy his freedom. Johnson sold snacks and drinks from a cart he pushed around campus. In his later years, Johnson took an apprentice named A. C. Seruby (nicknamed “Spader”) who sold peanuts from a large bag while wearing a top hat, an ascot, and a cutaway jacket.[1] As the third and last African American campus vendor in Princeton, Taylor had the longest tenure (from 1904 to 1949), overlapping briefly with Johnson’s apprentice.

William Taylor Standing

Photograph of William Taylor, an African American vendor on campus during the early 20th century.

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Taylor’s success as a Princeton entrepreneur may have been tied at least partly to Johnson, who preceded him as a campus vendor and created the demand for his wares. His experiences in Princeton were similar to Johnson’s in other ways as well. His treatment by Princeton students reflects the legacy of American slavery, as a commitment to white superiority remained firmly entrenched in the first half of the 20th century. The records concerning Taylor in the Princeton University Archives reveal a casual racism accepted as normal and benign among the student population, and largely unchanged between Johnson’s time and Taylor’s.

Johnson Jimmy Stink

Photograph of James Johnson, Princeton's first African American campus vendor.

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Spader Photo

Photograph of A. C. Seruby ("Spader"), James Johnson's apprentice.

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William Taylor

Taylor came to Princeton from Leesburg, Virginia, when he was around thirty years old, leaving his life as a servant to wealthy white southerners to go into business for himself. During the academic year in Princeton, Taylor worked 16 to 18 hours per day, selling hot dogs and other refreshments from a wheeled cart (dubbed the “doggie wagon”) that he usually parked on Nassau Street or University Place. For athletic events or anything else that drew a crowd, Taylor was sure to be there; he once claimed to have sold hot dogs to a mob during an undergraduate riot, and when Lake Carnegie froze over and attracted skaters, he sold coffee to ward off the chill.[2] During World War II, Taylor passed hot dogs through a fence to members of the U.S. Navy when they were on duty.[3]

William Taylor Nassau Street

Photograph of William Taylor, an African American vendor at Princeton in the early 20th century, on Nassau Street.

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A neighbor’s Irish setter, perhaps drawn by the smell of his wares, became Taylor’s constant companion at work, only going home when Taylor did. When the setter’s owner passed away, she left “Rory” to Taylor. Most members of the community seemed fond of Taylor, a fondness which he in turn may have reciprocated.[4] He reportedly had “a deep, inherent faith in the honesty of undergraduates” that might have led some to take advantage of him, though he claimed no one did. He would let anyone who didn’t have money on hand just pay at a later time, without keeping any records of who owed what.[5]

By all accounts, Taylor’s was a lucrative business, one that afforded him a comfortable life when many African American residents of Princeton struggled in the town’s overcrowded black neighborhood. The Princetonian mused that he made “a good living, has faith in humanity, and what more could anyone want?”[6] Though Taylor worked long hours in Princeton, he took his share of vacations, too. For most U.S. presidential inaugurations, Taylor went to Washington D.C. to observe the ceremonies.[7] He and his wife spent their summers in Leesburg.[8]

Postbellum Racism on Campus

Taylor does not typically appear by name in print sources found in the Princeton University Archives.  Just as undergraduates referred to James Johnson by the nickname “Jimmy Stink,” students called Taylor “Jigger-man” or simply “Jigger” for his entire 45-year career. In fact, the Daily Princetonian encouraged readers not to bother with his full name.[9] When Taylor’s name does appear in contemporary documents, it is without fail followed by something like the parenthetical captions penciled on the backs of the photos that illustrate this essay: “(Jiggerman)”.

Taylor was known by this term far beyond Princeton as well. Coca-Cola featured Taylor as the “jiggerman” in a 1930 ad campaign for a national audience, picturing him serving drinks outside the FitzRandolph Gateway with Nassau Hall in the background. “Other nights throughout the year there’s another traditional break in routine—visits to the ‘jiggerman’ at the gate with his cart of bacon buns and ice-cold Coca-Cola,” the ad explains.[10]

Coca Cola Ad

A national advertisement for Coca-Cola, featuring African American campus vendor William Taylor serving Princeton students at the FitzRandolph Gates.

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Though the word “jigger” can mean a small hand-cart like Taylor’s “doggie wagon,” the nickname is more likely a reference to Taylor’s race, or at a minimum some sort of double entendre that encompasses both the cart and the man who owned it. This slur was viewed as slightly more polite than the one with which it rhymes—which is not to say that Princetonians didn’t use that one too, though one sees it less frequently in written records.

Records also repeatedly quote Taylor in a stereotypical dialect, just as they had quoted James Johnson during his era, without applying the same dialect to white southerners who presumably had noticeable accents as well.[11] The Nassau Sovereign drew explicit comparisons between Taylor and Johnson in 1948, noting a similar style of dress and appearance as well as their shared occupation.[12] In 1941 the Nassau Literary Review also tied Taylor to Johnson, referring to Johnson as “this original jigger man.”[13]

Taylor’s death on March 26, 1949, was a blow to the community. As a local newspaper, Town Topics, wrote:

When he went, Princeton became a smaller town.[14]

The racial attitudes of his era, however, have limited what we can learn about William Taylor today. We don’t know what he thought of the nickname white Princeton residents gave him, or even if anyone ever asked his opinion about it. Though American slavery ended before his birth and he escaped some of the worst aspects of life in the Jim Crow South, Taylor’s experiences reflect the racism that continued to exist in 20th century Princeton.

About the AuthorPanel Toggle

April C. Armstrong earned her Ph.D. in Religion with a concentration in Religion in the Americas from Princeton University in 2014. Since 2014, she has been responsible for managing social media and blogs along with other work in public services as a Special Collections Assistant at Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, part of the Princeton University Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and the repository for the Princeton University Archives.

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[1]

See, for example, “Spader, the Peanut Man, Still Offers His Wares,” Daily Princetonian, 15 June 1929, 3.

[2]

“Moon on Lake Carnegie Lures Evening Skaters,” Daily Princetonian, 24 January 1940, 1.

[3]

“Call of ‘Jigger’ Is Synonym for Peanuts to Hungry Students along Nassau Street,” Daily Princetonian, 30 November 1942, 4.

[4]

“Services are Held Here for William Taylor, Princeton’s ‘Jigger Man’ for Half a Century,” Princeton Herald clipping, Box 241, Folder 19, Historical Subject Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[5]

John C. Carrington, “Unofficial Princetonians,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 32, No. 34 (3 June 1932): 780-781.

[6]

“Jigger Man Taylor,” Daily Princetonian, 9 May 1933, 2.

[7]

“Jigger Man, Asserting that He Will Go to Hoover’s Inauguration, Considers Business,” Daily Princetonian, 24 January 1929, 1.

[8]

“Jigger,” Nassau Sovereign (March 1948): 18.

[9]

“‘Jigger’ Still Reminisces, Sells Food,” Daily Princetonian 1 April 1964: 4.

[10]

See, for example, the ad found in Literary Digest, 31 May 1930, 31.

[11]

(March 1948): 18; “Jigger Man Misses Inauguration as Weather Dims His Enthusiasm,” Daily Princetonian, 6 March 1929; “Our Inquiring Reporter,” Daily Princetonian, 4 May 1925; and “Sanctum Talk,” Daily Princetonian, 3 December 1921, 2. For Johnson, see Andrew Clerk Imbrie, “James Johnson of Princeton: A Biography,” Nassau Literary Magazine 50, no. 9 (1 April 1895): 594-595; and Marion M. Miller, “Jimmy Johnson, D. C. L.,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 48, no. 26 (23 April 1948): 376. Quoting Johnson in dialect was compounded by a tendency to write his words in a stutter.

[12]

“Jigger,” Nassau Sovereign (March 1948): 18.

[13]

T. A. C. Crimmins, “Jimmy Stink of Princeton,” Nassau Literary Review 100, No. 1 (1 November 1941): 1.

[14]

“Topics of the Town,” Town Topics, 3 April 1949, 6.

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Did You Know...?A fugitive slave worked on the Princeton campus. Read More