Costermongers met a need for rapid food distribution from the wholesale markets (e.g., in London; Smithfield for meat, Spitalfields for fruit and vegetables or Billingsgate for fish) by providing retail sales at locations that were convenient for the labouring classes. Costermongers used a variety of devices to transport and display produce: a cart might be stationary at a market stall, a mobile (horse-drawn or wheelbarrow) apparatus or a hand-held basket might be used for light-weight goods such as herbs and flowers.
Costermongers experienced a turbulent history, yet survived numerous attempts to eradicate their class from the streets. Programmes designed to curtail their activities occurred during the reigns of Elizabeth I, Charles I and reached a peak during Victorian times. However, the social cohesion within the coster community, along with sympathetic public support, enabled them to resist efforts to eradicate them. As highly visible, colourful characters who provided service and convenience to the labouring classes, costermongers enjoyed a high level of public sympathy at times when they came under attack from authorities.
They became known for their melodic sales patter, poems and chants, which they used to attract attention. Both the sound and appearance of costermongers contributed to a distinctive street life that characterised London and other large European cities, including Paris. Their loud sing-song cry or chants used to attract attention became part of the fabric of street life in large cities in Britain and Europe. Costermongers exhibited a distinct identity. Individuals signalled membership of the coster community through a dress code, especially the large neckerchief, known as a kingsman, tied round their necks. Their hostility towards the police was legendary. The distinctive identity and culture of costermongers led to considerable appeal as subject-matter for artists, dramatists, comedians, writers and musicians. Parodies of the costermonger and his way of life were frequent features in Victorian music halls. Costermongers were ubiquitous in mid-Victorian England, but their numbers began to decline in the second half of the 20th-century when they began to take up pitches in the regulated markets.
The term, costermonger, first appeared in written English language in the early 16th century. The term, 'coster' is a corruption of costard, a kind of apple and the term 'monger' meaning a trader or broker. The first known user of the term, costermonger was by Alexander Barclay (circa 1484- 1552), poet and clergyman, in the Fyfte Eglog of Alexandre Barclay of the cytezene and vpondyshman published around 1518. "I was acquaynted with many a hucster , with a costardemonger and an hostler." The derivation of the term, costermonger, is mentioned in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English language, published in 1759. Charles Knight's London, published in 1851, also notes that a costermonger was originally an apple-seller. Although the original meaning of "costermonger" applied to itinerant apple-sellers, it gradually came to refer to anyone who sold fresh fruit or vegetables from a basket, hand cart or temporary stall. The term can be used to describe anyone who sells goods outdoors or in the streets and has come to be a synonym for street vendor.
Most contemporary dictionary definitions of costermonger refer to them as retail sellers or street vendors of fresh produce, operating from temporary stalls or baskets or barrows which are either taken on regular routes for door-to-door selling or which are set up in high traffic areas such as informal markets or lining the streets of busy thoroughfares. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a costermonger as "a person who sells fruit and vegetables outside rather than in a store" while the Collins Dictionary defines a costermonger as "a person who sells fruit or vegetables from a cart or street stand.