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