I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).
Photo of my family back in the 1950s
The Ultimate Threat!
Besides the threat..."Just WAIT until your father comes home!"... the absolute ultimatum that my mother used to occasionally employ to make we three kids behave better was her threat of giving us to the rag man.
Being the eldest and a girl I honestly do not remember ever being threatened but my younger brothers were told that on several occasions. One time my mother was at her wits end and actually picked up the telephone in our kitchen to make the call to the rag man. Of course we learned later that this was a ruse but at the time it was a horrible experience!
I vividly remember crying and pleading with her to "PLEASE do not give my brothers away!" They began crying also. It was a medley of the three of us crying and sobbing and promising to behave better that resulted in her putting the phone down. I remember telling her amidst wiping my tears that I would try my best to help my brothers mind her and act better.
What misbehavior by my brothers caused this episode I no longer remember. Just being small, energetic and adventurous boys was probably enough on occasion to tip the balance of good behavior in the other direction.
The more usual method that my mother utilized was to threaten with telling our father about things going amiss (i.e., not minding her) when he would come home from work. Being scolded by my mother was one thing but his deeper and more powerful voice was another!
Back in those days spanking was an accepted form of punishment and those infrequent duties were always delegated to my father. The anticipation of being marched down the basement steps and dropping our pants and being swatted on our behinds was almost worse than the actual deed. Of course the scolding that accompanied the corporal punishment made for a lasting impression.
Sister Lucas, the principal of the parochial school that we attended was in addition the school's disciplinarian. She was no bigger than a minute and except for her flowing habit would have appeared even smaller.
Sister Lucas had her wooden "Board of Education" which occasionally was swung on the offending (mostly boys) rear ends at the front of the class. When those boys got home they would be punished again by their parents when the parents were informed.
Of course some of the boys considered it a badge of honor to have gotten a lick from the Board of Education and they would actually keep count. Those were the days! (Smile)
As children my brothers and I had never seen nor heard of a rag man except for my mother's use of calling him. The tone in her voice was enough to scare us! Just like the bogeyman we did not question the fact that this was one man we never wanted to meet much less have to depart our family and go and live with him.
The rag man was some nebulous monster of a man that probably did horrible things to bad children and that was enough for us. We did not need to know any more.
As we got a little older and other forms of punishment meant more (like being grounded and not allowed to meet with our friends outside of school) the rag man threat slowly disappeared and we heard no more of that ogre. We can laugh now about it.
In reality where my mother grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rag men actually existed.
My mother was born in the mid-1920s and the Great Depression took place not long after that. The depression greatly affected the way people lived and waste of almost any kind was discouraged. People just naturally recycled everything that they could.
Many clothes were homemade and even if purchased in a store things were patched and re-worn until there was little left to salvage. Clothes were also passed from child to child as they outgrew things. This was the normal practice for almost everyone back then especially in the thrifty German neighborhood where my mother grew up.
Clothes rationing actually took place in Britain during WWII and there was a "Make Due and Mend" campaign that encouraged people to be thrifty. Many of those thrifty traits existed then on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
My mother actually remembered rag men coming down the streets in their horse drawn carts calling out what sounded like "Reks.........Reks!" to her ears.
My grandmother and the other women who lived within earshot would happily gather up whatever they deemed useless for personal use and take the rags to the street to be picked up by the various rag men who would come through the neighborhoods every so often.
In listening to this short video, this is what my mother interpreted as "Reks...Reks"
In my mother's young mind these rag men presented a sight that evoked some fear in her thoughts. She had no idea where these scraps of cloth ended up nor why these men would collect them in the first place. Where did they go? She did not even want to know.
She enlisted that memory of those seemingly unkempt looking raspy throat-ed men roaming the streets in their horse drawn wagons piled high with rags of all descriptions to draw upon when she needed to employ a different way to get our attention if things were getting out of control.
Being given to the rag man was the ultimate threat that achieved better behavior for a period of time in our home. Ah........memories! Ha ha!
Old Rags into New
In actuality rag recycling still exists today in many parts of the world. The picture below shows workers in Britain in the year 1942. They are working at salvaging old rags and ultimately turning it into new cloth.
The making of rag rugs was a popular way to repurpose cloth or linens that no longer functioned as first intended.
People making patchwork quilts could often use scraps of cloth and fashion it into something that was not only usable but also pretty.
Even today many clothes items not deemed saleable from thrift shops or other stores are often bundled up and sold by weight. Other countries are happy to purchase this and rework the salvaged items making it into something new.
So while the old threat of encouraging kids to be obedient by threatening them with being given to a rag man was a short lived moment in time, the recycling of rags is still serious business today.
More modern rag and bone men
Where we lived when the ragman threat still worked!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Peggy Woods