The “Rag Man”

Do any of you remember “the rag man”? When I lived with my grandmother I remember gathering up newspapers and rags and putting them aside. Before clothes went into the rag bag you removed the buttons. My grandmother had a jar of buttons nearby that she dumped them into.

As you must have gathered the clothes that went into the rag bag were beyond the wearable stage. Of course, we used old rags to clean as well. Grandma’s dust cloth was some sort of soft rag. She applied Lemolene to it to keep the dust from settling back on the surfaces. Lemolene was a polish that was made by one of the local furniture stores. I think my great-grandfather was credited with the formula. At any rate he made it for the store until he retired, then my grandfather took over.

Today we purchase cloths to dust with as well as clean the floors. In the “good” old days we used whatever we had. We did not purchase special cloths to clean with. We removed the buttons and proceeded.

I am not sure how often Mr. O’Brocta came around, but I think it was once a month. You knew he was in the neighborhood when his beat-up old truck started down the street. At grandma’s he knocked on the back door. Sometimes we had a bag out on the porch for him, but other times I got to run down cellar to bring up the old newspapers and rags for him. There was no charge for this service. His pay was what he could get from what he collected.

There must have been some kind of secondary outlet for the newspapers and rags. People who endured the depression did not throw things out routinely. They used whatever they had until it was no longer serviceable. I suppose the newspapers went right back into the paper making industry.

The junk in those days was nothing like it is today. Today I pass homes with multiple bags of junk out each week. Some places even have dumpsters. Of course, we burned our waste paper such as that from boxes and packaging. As for cans, there were not many of them each week since grandma cooked everything from scratch. Grandma’s pantry was just a section of her kitchen cupboard. I do not remember it, but the kitchen used to have a pantry behind where the kitchen table sat. When grandpa made the kitchen bigger he did away with the pantry but he kept all of the cupboards and put them to use.

My grandmother used to joke about the family that lived next door to them in later years. She told me that I could probably outfit my family with the clothes that they threw away. If something lost a button it was history. If a hem drooped the item was gone.

We have been recyclers from way back. I learned how to conserve and make do. I raised my family the same way. I have a stash of cleaning cloths, but all of them have the buttons removed and they are beyond being able to wear. Soft t-shirts make excellent cleaning cloths. When I wash my windows I use old newspapers.

My mother-in-law taught me the fine art of mending. If something had a hole it went on the mending pile after it exited the wash. I must confess that I never enjoyed mending so I let that pile get about as high as I dared. When my husband complained about his work clothes I knew it was time for me to mend.

I loved to sew clothes from scratch in those days so I disciplined myself by making myself clean up my mending before I was allowed to start a new project. By the time I applied patches the shirts and pants increased in weight. It seemed that some pants needed mending after each wearing. When they got to that point I cut out the zipper (yes, we kept those, too) and removed the buttons or snaps.

Mr. O’Brocta would not have collected many clothes at the farm. We did not make a lot of money so we took care of what we had. The farm also did not have many cans. My mother-in-law and I canned and froze things from our garden. This, too, was a new experience for me when I moved to the farm. When I think about it now I wonder how I ever managed to learn enough to be able to survive as a farm wife.

The jars we used were filled over and over. Some of the jars that I used belong to my great-grandmother. I also got a bunch from my mother-in-law’s aunt that had been in her family for a long time. Each time I used them I checked for cracks along the edge. The jars would not seal if there was a crack.

When I made jam or jelly I liked to use the old baby food jars. They had snap lids that sealed themselves. Even while I was purchasing baby food I recycled. I got better and better at this. Eventually I purchased a small food processor to make food for the babies on my own. I did this a lot by the time the grandchildren came along. It was a lot easier when the young ones could eat what we were eating.

My favorite storage spot is a thin cupboard that my husband built for me to fill a spot in my pantry. It is perfect for tin cans and bottle. It does not get too warm since it is off the kitchen proper. There is a slot built into the back to store my bread board. Even the board that grandpa made for me out of the old cottonwood tree fits in there.

Although I titled this” The Rag Man”, as you must have noticed the concept was about the way we survived without a lot of waste.

Ann Swanson writes from her home in Russell, PA. Contact at