In 1950–51, inspired by old prints of street criers, Penn began a series of photographs depicting representatives of the Small Trades in Paris, London, and New York. The project began in Paris, where he was assisted in the selection of subjects by French Vogue editor Edmonde Charles-Roux and photographer Robert Doisneau. Penn's reflections on the tradespeople:
In general, the Parisians doubted that we were doing exactly what we said we were doing. They felt there was something fishy going on, but they came to the studio more or less as directed— for the fee involved. But the Londoners were quite different from the French. It seemed to them the most logical thing in the world to be recorded in their work clothes. They arrived at the studio, always on time, and presented themselves to the camera with a seriousness and pride that was quite endearing. Of the three, the Americans as a group were the least predictable. In spite of our cautions, a few arrived for their sittings having shed their work clothes, shaved, even wearing dark Sunday suits, sure this was their first step on the way to Hollywood.