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Ultimate Old Threat in Being Given to the Rag Man

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

Our family back then.  My brother holding the candle was in honor of his First Holy Communion.  We were older at this point and the rag man threat no longer worked.

Our family back then. My brother holding the candle was in honor of his First Holy Communion. We were older at this point and the rag man threat no longer worked.

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.

A pencil sketch of a girl getting a spanked bottom.

A pencil sketch of a girl getting a spanked bottom.

School Days

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)

This looked similar to the paddle that Sister Lucas employed on rare occasions.

This looked similar to the paddle that Sister Lucas employed on rare occasions.

Rag Man

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.

Rag and bone man in Dublin, Ireland.

Rag and bone man in Dublin, Ireland.

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.

Rag and bone man in Croydon, London, May 2011.

Rag and bone man in Croydon, London, May 2011.

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.

Old Rags Into New Cloth- Salvage in Britain, April 1942

Old Rags Into New Cloth- Salvage in Britain, April 1942

Rag Rugs

The making of rag rugs was a popular way to repurpose cloth or linens that no longer functioned as first intended.

Rug constructed out of fabric strips cut from second use t-shirts and bed linens.

Rug constructed out of fabric strips cut from second use t-shirts and bed linens.

Patchwork Quilts

People making patchwork quilts could often use scraps of cloth and fashion it into something that was not only usable but also pretty.

handmade quilt for a queen size bed

handmade quilt for a queen size bed

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 serious business even 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


Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 22, 2019:

Hi M Benjamin Freeman,

I guess mothers use whatever inventiveness they can to keep their children in check. I got a kick out of hearing that your mother actually had a name for the ragman which was "Cowboy Jake." Our ragman threat was nameless. Haha! Thanks for your comment.

M Benjamin Freeman on February 22, 2019:

My mom was a homemaker. She grew up in the rural South during the Great Depression. All her life, she never threw anything away that could be salvaged. I was the youngest of three, with seven years between myself and my brother.

My father was a truck driver and stayed on the road for five to seven days at a time. So, mom had to single parent a lot. She used the "ragman" to scare me into good behavior.

Only her version was named "Cowboy Jake".

Robert Sacchi on August 23, 2018:

It has an interesting poster.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 23, 2018:

Hi Robert,

Thanks for those details. Will have to keep my eye out for that Malice series if it is ever shown on television reruns.

Robert Sacchi on August 22, 2018:

I found out about that one through my boss at the time. She mentioned she was helping someone make a movie. She was a gopher, stage hand, and extra. She was a ragman, "ragperson" I suppose. Anyway I thought it would make an interesting article. So I asked her about it and got in touch with the producer/director/writer/… you get the idea. I did a telephone interview. I wrote an article but couldn't publish it. I did write about it in a HubPages article. It was 10 years late and way too short. Philip J. Cook is the director in the Malice series so he didn't need my help anyway.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 22, 2018:

Hi Robert,

You certainly seem to know your movies! Using ragmen as an army sounds intriguing.

Robert Sacchi on August 21, 2018:

There is a movie, released as Despiser, that has ragmen as the bad guy army.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 21, 2018:

Hi Robert,

The timing of when this threat still worked was in the early 1950s. By the time the 1960s rolled around, we would have been too old to fall for that ragman threat. (Smile)

Robert Sacchi on August 20, 2018:

You have a point on that. Although it might depend on individual school locations. It seems in the large cities things went downhill in the '60s.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 19, 2018:

Hi Robert,

Relating to school infractions back then, they seemed mild in comparison to what teachers deal with in classrooms today. So did the old punishments work? Times seemed better back then. Not sure how that correlates but it just might be a factor. Of course, rules have been changed and paddling would not be allowed today.

Robert Sacchi on August 17, 2018:

Yes, although the paddling as a badge of honor seems to indicate these old fashioned punishments didn't work as well as advertised.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 17, 2018:

Hi Robert,

When we were a bit older, and often as adults, we have many times laughed over this form of threatened punishment. All I can say is that it worked at the time. I can see from the first poll that there are others who were threatened with the same thing. This certainly goes back in time! Haha!

Robert Sacchi on August 16, 2018:

An interesting look back at child discipline in the old days. I didn't hear about the ragman until I watched the 1979 movie Nutcracker Fantasy. Though I was aware of other "sell them to" options.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 16, 2014:

Hi Au fait,

My mother must have had some fun with this "threat" when we were youngsters knowing that it was a ruse on her part. Reading about how close your siblings were...your mother was certainly a busy lady! So your sister would have traded you for a horse. Funny! Ah...the good old days! Thanks for your votes, pin and share. Wonder how many others have memories like ours?

C E Clark from North Texas on May 13, 2014:

We had a junk man who came around now and then. We lived in the country on a farm, so we all stayed pretty busy most of the time. Rarely my mother would make the threat of telling our father. Most of the time she dealt with whatever was happening herself. There were 5 of us, the first 4 just a year apart each and them me much younger than the others. She said I was her 'change of life baby.'

My mother never threatened to give or send any of us away, but my sister closest to me in age used to threaten to trade me to our Great Uncle Harry for a horse. He was a horse breeder/trader/farmer, and my favorite uncle while he was alive.

Enjoyed reading this great story about times gone by. Voted up, interesting, pinned to Awesome Hubpages, and shared with my followers.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 11, 2012:

Hi Doug from Shillington pa,

Obviously the service the ragmen provided was good but I wonder how many children were scared by the threat of being given (or captured, in your point of reference) to the ragmen? Things have changed since those times of bygone days with the horses and carts. Thanks for your comment.

Doug from Shillington pa on March 11, 2012:

I vividly remember the rag man . I and other children would run and hide for fear of being taken by the rag man or given to him. Yes, a horse drawn cart. And a net to catch children. Surprised no one has written a book about the rag man

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 11, 2010:

Hi Billy,

Spankings were far and few between back then...only a very few that I can actually remember in our home. We didn't need a boogeyman...we had the ragman as the ultimate threat. Ha!

billyaustindillon on August 10, 2010:

Peggy a fun and interesting read - no doubt it wasn't back at the time for your brothers. I don't ever remember a ragman etc but you always never wanted the other parent to find out if you played up - that was the downfall once that happened. The boogeyman was probably the scariest thing back then.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 17, 2010:

Hi again Soozn,

You are so right. Too many people sue at the drop of a hat these days. Not how we were brought up...that's for sure!

I'll admit...being given to gypsies sounds like more fun than being given to the rag man! Ha!

Soozn on March 17, 2010:

Hi Peggy


No one in those good ole' days would have thought of tampering with foods & products like they do today. Also no one would have sued for any little reason if someone made a mistake. My mother used to threatened us with " selling us to the gypsies" when we misbehaved. I remember thinking it might have been fun to ride in a caravan and be part of a circus...LOL

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 16, 2010:

Hi Soozn,

It would seem that we had many of the same experiences in our past. Yes...the cream was at the top of the milk and my mother and grandmother put it to good use in making delicious meals.

I'll bet that the milk deliveries today have sealed tops to keep people from tampering with them. Back in the "good old days" no one seemed to be concerned with those types of things. Too bad things have changed so much in that regard!

Soozn on March 16, 2010:

Peggy- Yes we had milk delivered in glass bottles with the cardboard tops. Remember the days when the cream was at the top, before homogenization? We also had a bakery delver bread and other goodies. The Fuller brush man came by, too. I remember my little brother used to call him the "full of" brush man.

We still have milk delivery here Colorado--you can get it in returnable glass bottles, too. I used to get it when my kids were teens, but now I am alone and do not drink enough milk for a weekly delivery.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 15, 2010:

Hello Soozn,

We had the men who sharpened knives and also scizzors. We also had the milk delivered to the door with just little cardboard inserts at the top. My mother would put out the glass empties and write a note as to how many refills she wanted each week. Wonder if you also had the Fuller Brush man come by? Oh....the good old days!

So happy you liked this Rag Man hub and also the one about the lovely sculptures in Loveland. You certainly live in a beautiful area of the country!!!

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Soozn on March 15, 2010:

Hi Peggy

thanks for the great walk down memory lane.

I grew up in New Jersey in the 1950's and remember a rag man coming around the neigborhood with a cart to sell rags! We had a knife sharpener come around, too.

I was surprised to see your photos from Loveland, Colorado-- I live in the next town over in Fort Collins. I really enjoyed all the photos.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 31, 2009:

Hello William,

Ah yes.....the milkman. The bottles were delivered with that little cardboard topping and one would save the empties to be put out and picked up when a new delivery would be made.

I don't specifically remember the knife sharpening men but knew of their existence. My mother DEFINITELY remembers the ice men! One of those boys doing it back then to earn extra money turned out to be her husband (my father) years later!

Thanks for your comments!

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 31, 2009:

Great hub, Peggy W. Your story mirrors my own to a large extent, only it wasn't the ragman that my mother threatened to pawn me off to. I kind of remember the ragmen, but I remember the man with the knife sharpener, the iceman and the milkman much better. When I was very young they were drawn by horse and wagon. Kirk Douglas, star of "Spartacus" and many other great movies, titled his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son." In my family, my mother was the disciplinarian, but sometimes threatened having my father take the belt to me. I only remember him doing so once.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 30, 2009:

Hi stephie, Afraid I cannot answer that for you as it occurred in my mother's age bracket. I only grew up hearing about it. Also depends upon where you grew up, I suppose.

If anyone can help stephie with a date, please respond. Thanks!

stephie on May 30, 2009:

I remember the ragman. We sat on the ash cans and watcher him go by he had one horse and the ashmen and garbagemen had two horses. Anyone know what year he no longer came through the allies?

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2009:

Hello DjBryle Works,

Actually I think these parenting methods DID make us better individuals as you said. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2009:

Hi Mardi,

So it was the Hutterites in Canada verses the rag man in Wisconsin. Funny! Amazing the things that stick in our memories while growing up. Pretty smart on our parents part, don't you think? Ha!

Guess many of us had similar experiences even if the threats were slightly different. Enjoyed hearing about yours. Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2009:

Hi G-Ma,

You are right! Many similarities between our families! We also mended sock holes using a lightbulb. Had forgotten about that.

The rags were probably used in lieu of curlers but since my hair was curly, I never had that done. As a matter of fact........WHY my mother decided to give me a permanent is a mystery. I must have wanted one? All I remember is that my hair which was naturally curly at the time was SO CURLY after the home permanent that it was just about impossible to comb through. Some of the hair was actually cut off to lessen the pain of trying to get through that corkscrew frizziness! Never again did I ever have a permanent.

After Dr. Spock, etc. spankings were no longer in mode. Now people would be accused of child abuse! How times change!

Thanks for your additions to this hub.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2009:

Hi shamelabboush, Glad that this story brightened your day and made you laugh. Those of us left in our family that remember this now laugh about it also. Thanks for your comment.

DjBryle Works on May 12, 2009:

Oh, the rag man has somehow made us better individuals who knows the importance of great values! LOL! They helped our parents a lot! =)

Wonderful hub! Thanks for sharing =)

Mardi Winder-Adams from Western Canada and Texas on May 12, 2009:


HAHA - This must have been a parenting strategy of the times. On our farm the biggest threat was going to be dropped of with the Hutterites. In Canada they are like the Amish and live without electricity, radio, TV (b&w at that time) or phones, etc. Everyone works on the farm in some capacity and they also have very strict dress codes.

One day my sister and I wouldn't stop harping on each other about something, likely who was doing what chores, and my Mom and Dad made us get in the car and started to head that direction. My sister and I were absolutely terrified and started blubbering and promising to be good kids. Dad finally turned around and went home- we all did chores without complaining after that.

Ditto on the spanking!

Merle Ann Johnson from NW in the land of the Free on May 12, 2009:

yep, we must have been neighbors, am German ,went to Parocial school and wore all handmade clothes, had my hair curled in strips of rags..I still can't figure that one out and mom isn't able to remember to tell me how, now, we even hand mended sock holes using a light bulb to put the sock on where the hole was....Great hub...G-Ma :O) Hugs (oh and the spankings for sure)

shamelabboush on May 11, 2009:

This is very funny really. I was laughing thru the whole story especially the basement story :) Nice memories...

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 11, 2009:

Hi Melody,

A funny memory at that! LOL Thanks for the comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 11, 2009:

Hi Teresa,

I guess the reason I do not have those memories is that we were a little more isolated in the country. Our potato peels went into the compost pile for the garden. The other garbage not useful for composting was burned. Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 11, 2009:

Hi Pete,

Did you proudly keep track of the swats? So....this rag man story resonates with you first hand. Thanks for commenting.

Melody Lagrimas from Philippines on May 11, 2009:

Great memories :).

Sheila from The Other Bangor on May 11, 2009:

Rag and bone man, yep; also the man who collected potato peels for the pigs.

Pete Maida on May 11, 2009:

We still had a rag man come around until I was about seven. I also remember the paddles quite well; I received swats from many different kinds.

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