Remember When: Ash men, rag men and soda jerks

Tom Mooney - Remember When
Tom Mooney Remember When -

Gripping the big block of ice with a set of tongs, you toss it over your shoulder and head from your truck to the kitchen of your customer’s house.

You open the door of the family’s icebox and carefully place the cake of ice inside.

Now their milk and other perishables will be kept properly cold for another day or two.

Want this job? Good luck! You’re not likely to see any help wanted ads for “ice delivery person” today. Thanks to the advent of electric and gas kitchen appliances, the fellow with the tongs is gone along with the ever-spilling drip pans.

As Labor Day draws near, let’s take a look at some other jobs our ancestors did that you will never do.

Bargain basement clerk: The big department stores once had basements – yes, below-ground levels – with lower-priced merchandise similar to what was being sold at regular price on the upper floors. The clerk’s job was to reassure you that you were getting great stuff, even though the bag was a special color to mark you as a low-price shopper.

Grocery delivery boy: In an era when maybe only half their customers owned cars, food stores routinely employed young boys with coaster wagons to deliver orders to people’s homes. The trips weren’t far, since stores tended to serve neighborhoods rather than whole communities. The same young capitalist, using the same wagon, might also deliver Sunday newspapers to homes.

Uniformed movie usher: I used to think this was the world’s greatest job. You’d wear a spiffy outfit and carry a flashlight while showing latecomers to seats and (occasionally) quieting unruly kids. Its real lure was that you could see all the movies and chat with the girls selling candy. So what if the weekly serial thriller lost its luster along about the third viewing.

Rag man: Announcing his presence by blowing a cardboard horn, this gentleman would steer his horse-drawn wagon down your street to accept old clothing and any other fabric you’d want to get rid of. He’d then sell them at a place where they’d be turned into cleaning cloths.

Ash man: Similar was this fellow, who would empty your bushel baskets full of ashes from your coal furnace and stove into his truck or wagon. What did he do with them? Well, in those anthracite-heavy days municipalities put ashes on their streets instead of our modern salt and chemicals. Like his colleague with the rags, he was basically a recycler.

Mobile carnival ride guy: To the shouts of excited neighborhood children, this welcome visitor would park his truck in the middle of the block and unfold the sides, revealing an actual carnival ride with mini-planes or race cars you could sit in and then be whirled around. All you were missing was the cotton candy.

Soda jerk: From his raw materials of ice cream, chocolate syrup, root beer, cherries and peanuts, this alchemist of edibles, this Svengali of sweets made the drugstore soda fountain the place to be if you were a teenager. He probably also made marriages by bringing the guys and girls together in the evening when there was no place to go dancing and you’d already seen the flick at the movie house across the street.

Well, maybe you can’t get these jobs today. That’s too bad, since every one of them had its own little cachet. From the delivery boy’s entrepreneurship to the rag man’s horse that all the kids loved to pet, they were jobs for the ages.

Tom Mooney Remember When Mooney Remember When

Tom Mooney

Remember When

Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]

Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]