An Old Time Picker – The Ragman

rag-and-bone-cart_pencil
The popularity of American Pickers on TV reminded me of the “rag pickers” of the 1930-40s era in Cincinnati.  There was the occasional horse-drawn cart that rumbled through the streets of our small working-class East End neighborhood with a picker shouting in a sing-song style, “Any rags or old iron”.  They were the pickers looking to buy; in our neighborhood we also had a picker who wanted to sell.  On hot summer afternoons, a big grey 1930s Packard would turn from Eastern Avenue and make its way down the slope on Gotham Place toward the river bank.

My sister in front of our house with the beautiful pink tea roses.  Gotham Place is shown in the background
My sister in front of our house with the beautiful pink tea roses. Gotham Place is shown in the background

A tall older man with a day’s growth of beard would maneuver the car to a clear spot in the large area outside our little red brick house and set up shop.  The car doors would be opened and from every house on the narrow street women and children would hurry out the door.  Mothers would call out, “The Ragman is here” and everybody would gather around the car to see what treasures might be available that day.

The Ragman drove a very raggedy version of this car
The Ragman drove a very raggedy version of this car

I never learned what the man’s real name was, but he made his rounds of the better homes in Hyde Park, Indian Hill, Mt. Lookout, Mt. Washington, etc., to pick up  castoffs which he sold at very low prices on his various stops throughout the East End.  Customers would pick up an item and ask, “How much?”  The Ragman would think a second or two and give a reasonable price which we could take or leave.  There was a constant stream of questions and answers going back and forth between customer and seller.

Daddy, Mother, Lillian and Shirley  - pictured in the big area in front of our house where the Ragman used to park
Daddy, Mother, Lillian and Shirley – pictured in the big area in front of our house where the Ragman used to park

There was something for everybody – pots and pans, dishes, glassware, clothes, toys, and my favorite – movie magazines.  For a nickel I could buy 3 or 4 slightly outdated publications and read all about Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Lon McAllister and all the other “stars of the silver screen”.  There might also be an occasional Seventeen magazine which was interesting for a pre-teenager to read to get news of the latest styles of clothes and tips on dating.

My mother tended to pick up old pots and pans which could be made new again with her addition of little round metal pieces that she always had on hand to patch worn-out utensils.  My little sister might buy a small doll or toy.  One year she bought a doll’s china tea set with a teapot and creamer that had pouring spouts shaped like elephants’ trunks.  I had been irritable with her when I came home from school that day and Mother said, “Oh, be patient with her.  She worked all afternoon cleaning up a special gift for your birthday.”  It truly was a special gift – I wish I still had it.

y sister and I in our Victory Garden.  In the background is the Cincinnati Water Works
My sister and I in our Victory Garden. In the background is the Cincinnati Water Works

These were the early to mid-1940s World War II days before television and shopping malls.  It was a wonderful treat to be able to do some shopping almost in our front yard on the banks of the Ohio River on a clear blue summer day.

Is it any wonder that my favorite stores now are antique malls and thrift shops?

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Lillian Applegate Westfelt was a mother of 4, grandmother of 6, and great-grandmother of 3. She was an 86-year-old widow living in a nice little bungalow with her oldest daughter and a beagle-dachsund named Addie. She passed away in November, 2018.

8 thoughts on “An Old Time Picker – The Ragman”

  1. “My mother tended to pick up old pots and pans which could be made new again with her addition of little round metal pieces that she always had on hand to patch worn-out utensils.”

    Interesting! Do you recall how this was accomplished?

    Loved your pictures!

    1. In the 1940s, they used to sell little boxes of metal discs in sizes up to 3/4 inch or so. I believe there was a hole in the center and another piece was somehow inserted to make a patch over a bad spot in a pan. I haven’t seen these in years and never used them myself. They were probably more popular during the World War II years when everything was patched and used again and again. Lillian

  2. What an interesting story. Long before the term recycle came about, everyone reused everything, didn’t they? I remember clothes being worn, patched, made into something else, and finally when they couldn’t be worn again, the zippers and buttons were removed for future use. Can’t imagine how those little circle patches for pots worked but I remember seeing them in the five and dime stores. Love your stories. Hugs and stitches, Betty Lou

    Sent from my iPad

  3. What a great story! I loved reading – it reminded me of laying on the porch swing in the late afternoon when Nana would sit in the glider next to me and tell me stories about her childhood – which was way earlier in the century than yours! your victory garden is outstanding and your sister’s bike is Primo!

  4. I love this post. Your pictures are terrific. I wish I had any childhood pictures. I think about three have survived my mother’s death. I’m sure there are more, but they didn’t come to me because I was so young. It brought back to my mind some buried memories that I will have to write in my family journal. We didn’t have the rag-picker, but we had the peddler with needles and thread and other good things. He also sharpened knives and scissors. Thanks for the post and reminding me of my own buried memories.

  5. What an interesting look back at your childhood. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I remember best the Hellmans bakery truck coming though the neighborhood with loaves of fresh bread, and DONUTS…mmmm

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