July 1995

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The Pitchmen

or, How a Fourteen-Year-Old Corningite
Spent his Saturday Evenings in 1925


Robert F. McNamara

One of the most pleasant treats in Corning, New York, during the warm months of the 1910s - 1920s was the arrival of a number of self-employed itinerants. Before World War I, for instance, there were the little German bands: a trio or quartet of musicians who would play a concert at busy corners and then pass the hat for Trinkgeld. Wartime prejudice silenced the German bands, but the scissors grinder was above politics.

Each year he would go from door to door, backpacking his emery wheel and ringing his handbell to alert customers. The umbrella man also made the rounds of the residential streets in search of umbrellas and parasols to recondition.

Of all of these small-time entrepreneurs and entertainers, the pitchmen were the most numerous and the most popular. You would always find a team of hawkers on summer Saturdays at the "official" sales corner, Market and Cedar Streets. They touted a variety of items at "bargain" prices: household gadgets; impracticalities like a combined pen and pencil; housecleaning powders; automobile wax. One could never be sure of their honesty, but they were geniuses at attracting a crowd with their spiel, show-biz, and salesmanship.

I thoroughly enjoyed joining their audiences on fair Saturday evenings. Instead of trying to recall the routines of a variety of peddlers, I am going to describe the presentation of a generic team of men who pitched what was always the favorite type of product: patent medicine.

I must first explain that Corning's main thoroughfare, Market Street, was always busiest on Saturdays. Although the little city was largely industrialized by the 1910s and 1920s, it continued to be the weekend shopping center for farmers of the vicinity. From early morning until 9:00 p.m. (the stores prolonged their hours of service three hours on Saturdays), the street was crowded with autos and wagons fighting for space with the trolley cars, and the sidewalks were alive with purchasers and window-shoppers. Saturday daytime might be hot and hectic, but the cool of dusk could change the mood of Market Street completely. The glow of street lights and shop lights now gave to street, vehicles, and throngs a romantic aura.

Let us set a fictitious Saturday evening in July 1925 for the description of what we pitch-hooked gawkers gathered to hear and see.

Market street was only two blocks north of my home at 32 East First Street. This night I take, not the short route over Cedar Street, but the longer route over Pine, because I have an errand to perform along the line. At Erie Avenue I cross the tracks (for a century they bisected the South Side). I bypass the popcorn wagon next to the Erie Railroad station (I had just finished supper), and I reach Market precisely when the Salvation Army Band, circled at the southwest corner, begins its patient program of hymns and homilies. I turn right, walk towards Cedar Street, and drop in at the pool parlor operated Charlie Vales.

Not to play billiards, I hasten to say. The cloistered poolroom in the rear part of the store was tacitly considered out-of-bounds for a proper Corning young man. (In 1925 I was not a billiardist nor even a young man.) But the front part of the store housed a hat-cleaning shop and an elegant marble shoeshine stand. One risked no stigma by patronizing these services, and I had come for my weekly shine.

Charlie Vales — pronounced VaLEESE — was a kindly, soft-spoken native of Greece, with a high forehead and a heavy mustache. He gave a good shoeshine. As I look down at him from my throne, now as always, I have difficulty keeping my eyes off the long, deep cavity in his forehead. Was this from a childhood fracture or from a battle wound. I never did hear, or ask.

Shoes burnished bright, I hurry out between the two or three young blades who lounge at the entranceway watching the passing parade. In a minute I reach Cedar Street and cross to the pitchmen's corner (there was no traffic light to delay me in those days). That evening's hawkers have already megaphoned an audience together and are into their scenario. Who are tonight's stars and what are they peddling? It is a pair of alleged American Indians, and they are selling some sort of medicine. One of them has long hair, wears an Indianish shirt and a handsome feather war bonnet. His name, I would learn, is "Chief Red Fire." I am ready to accept him as a genuine Native American. The other man, whose name is "Bob," is less distinctively ethnic. His hair is short, he wears store clothes, and although he refers to himself as an Indian, his oratorical style is more Coney Island than Cherokee. Well, no matter.

The salesman had swung up an oil torch for illumination. In its irregular light I see their table. It contains rows of bottles full of a darkish liquid. Alongside the bottles are three large glass jars containing preserved rattlesnakes. Next to the jars is a cage in which there are three restless live rattlesnakes. Beside the cage, oddly, lie a blowtorch and a soldering iron. When I have sized up these properties I begin to listen to Bob. He is presenting himself as a living proof of the efficacy of the remedy that he is vending.

"…Look at me. I am fifty-five years old. But you don't see no gray hairs on my head, do you? You don't see no lines on my face, do you? How do I keep so healthy? I'll tell you how. I use CHIEF WHITE DOG'S CHEROKEE OIL!

"We wanna give you a chance to buy this wonderful medicine, and in a little while I'm gonna make you an offer you can't afford to pass up.

"But right now Chief Red Fire is gonna handle these live rattlesnakes before your very eyes. Introducing CHIEF RED FIRE!" (Applause.)

Red Fire bows to the onlookers and responds with a few war whoops. Then he picks up the jars of pickled snakes and shows the crowd their heads, their fangs, and their rattles. He tells how he caught them and why they are so dangerous.

Next, he sets the jars down and unlocks the cage of live snakes. With perhaps exaggerated caution he opens the door. He reaches inside, very, very gingerly. The spectators, dead silent and on tiptoe, watch intently. After what seems an age, he pulls out snake No. 1, holding it by the neck, and slams the cage door shut. For the next ten minutes he plays with the rattlers, one after the other. He swings them, stretches them, festoons them. At long last he returns the third serpent to its lair and locks the little door. He has obviously suffered no injury. But only when the cage is securely closed do the watchers heave one common sigh of relief. They give the Chief a big hand. One man asks him if he has ever been bitten by his snakes. "Oh, yes," he answers ruefully. "Many times." (Another big hand.)

While the spectators are still shaking their heads in wonderment, Bob quickly resumes his sales talk.

"Brave man, Chief Red Fire!

"Now, folks, let's get down to business. You all get a lot of pains in your bodies. What you need to cure them is a medicine that will PENETRATE: get right in there and kill the pain. Nothing fills the bill better than CHIEF WHITE DOG'S CHEROKEE OIL.

"Watch me now. I'm gonna show you how well it penetrates. I'm gonna put some of the oil on my shoe." He takes off his shoe and shows it around.

"This here is a good shoe. It's a five-dollar shoe and the leather is good and thick. See how I pour some Cherokee Oil on." He pours. "See that? See how it's already drying on the outside? That's because it's going' right through the leather. Now, a man's skin is much thinner than this shoe leather. Cherokee Oil will go right through your skin and get right at any pain.

"Look, folks. You take a lot of pills for pains, don't you? Sure! But I ask you, what good are pills?

"Listen. You got a headache. You swallow a headache pill. Pill goes to your stomach. Pain is in your head. Is that pill in your stomach gonna help the ache in your head? Of course not. BUT, if you rub your head with Chief White Dog's Oil, it'll sink right in and cure that old headache.

"You got a toothache? Rub your gums with this oil, and the ache will go. Got rheumatics? Rub some on your joints and it will help the hurt. Got corns on your feet? Rub a little on your corns. Now I ain't saying it will take out the corns. I ain't saying that. But it'll take the pain out of the corns. That's what it'll do."

Indian Bob now puts on a scary little act of his own to prove his point.

"Lookee here. To show how Cherokee Oil kills pain I'm gonna rub some on my tongue. Then I'm gonna pass a red-hot iron right over it."

He turns on the hitherto mysterious blowtorch. In its blue flame he sets the business-end of the soldering iron. Meanwhile he extends his tongue and lubricates the top of it with a good measure of the oil. Then he seizes the hot iron, and holding the tongue taut with his left hand, he moves the glowing head slowly up and down the flesh several times. Again the viewers fall silent and popeyed. He stops now with a flourish and points to his uninjured tongue. "See?" he says with a smile. "Isn't that great stuff?" The crowd applauds and he takes a bow.

Now the time has come for the actual peddling.

"I've proved to you folks what a wonderful oil this is. All our pains is under the skin. What we need is something that will sink down and get at 'em.

"Now, you can buy Cherokee Oil in your drugstores. They'll charge you one dollar for a bottle, family size. But the bottles we sell they're fifty-cent size. You can't get that size in no drugstore.

"I told you earlier that I was gonna make you a special offer, and I'm gonna stick to my word. I'm not cheating you. I'm not trying to fool you. If you've ever been fooled it wasn't by no Indian. It was by one of your own race.

"I said this size bottle sells for fifty cents. I'm gonna give it to you for a quarter. For just two-bits, no more. In fact, I'll go that one better. If you buy two bottles, I'll give you a third bottle ab-so-lute-ly free gratis. And what thanks do I expect? The only thanks I want is, you go home, use it, and tell all your friends about it. That's all. O. K.?"

Sales begin. The first couple of buyers are possibly shills, but a good many convinced purchasers follow them. One man who was wise-cracking a while back buys a bottle, as if to make amends for his earlier doubts. A housewife in a blue polka-dot dress orders a half-dozen bottles. ("Always glad to serve the ladies," says Bob gallantly as he puts them into her shopping basket.) A shy little Italian man takes three bottles. A brawny black man invests in two-bits' worth. And so it goes. Eventually the audience, purchasers and non-purchasers, drifts away. (If the night was still young, the pitchmen might stage repeat performances. Chances are, at their afternoon and evening shows together, they could take in a pretty penny according to the economy of 1925.)

By 9:30, however, the storekeepers have switched off their window lights and locked their doors, and the Saturday crowds have departed. Market Street has lost its brief magic and become almost a ghost street. I can imagine that at evening's end our Indian hucksters had demounted their flare lamp, packed it with the rest of the gear into their rattletrap auto, and driven off to who knows where. But I would not have witnessed their departure, having returned home the short way when the firebell rang curfew to us young'uns.

Street vending is surely one of the world's oldest professions. The salesmen practice quintessential trade. Trader Primus has an article he wants to sell. He targets Secundus and tries to convince him that he can't live without the article. Secundus at long last agrees. Cash is exchanged for commodity, and both part friendly at least for the time being. (Caveat emptor, said the Romans: "Buyer beware!")

I can't imagine that the montebanks took their acts to larger cities. Their pitch presupposed an unsophisticated, naive clientele. But we small-town yokels were not so dumb after all. Nobody had to buy from the Saturday night pitchmen; so you could just enjoy their hour of spiel and sideshow without spending one Indian-head penny!

© 1995, Robert F. McNamara
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