Letty and Ray Owings, ages 89 and 91, share their memories of freak shows, patent medicine salesmen, and minstrel shows, during the mid-1930s, in rural Missouri.

Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

“What would you like to have cured?”

Letty shares:

Imagine a world without newspapers, electricity or central heat. Imagine a world without television. If you can think of a world where all communication was by word of mouth, that was our world, during the Great Depression in the small farming community in Missouri.

In the mid-1930s, people with genetic deformities or other physical issues such as being morbidly obese were considered to be ‘freaks of nature.’ People without arms, or maybe with a leg off from the knee down would be featured at the State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri. Also, the shows would travel and come through a series of towns, to show the freaks, and sell patent medicines all in the same venue. These events would often take place in a town park.

Since no one had any money for real doctors to come and make house calls, nearly all doctoring was done with patent medicines. The salesmen would pose the question, “What would you like to have cured?” They had bottled cures for everything from bad sex to diarrhea. The McNess man, who was the same man for years, would come around in his horse-drawn buggy, and sell his medicines, but he also sold vanilla and red sugar for cookies. The medicines were always red-colored liquid in bottles, never pills.

We had two things in our closet from the patent medicine man. While many consider all things from that time to be snake oil, one of the things we had in our closet is still available today. At that time, we called it “horse salve.” Today we call it “Bag Balm.” We used the salve for everything, including its original intended use, which was to soften cow teats.

We also had “blackberry balsam” for diarrhea and stomach upset. The horse salve and the blackberry balsam were inside the house, in the closet.

If you were outside, and you were cutting the grass in the chicken yard, and you got cut, or in the alternative, if you cut your finger (nearly off) in the sawbuck, you headed to the tractor and unscrewed the cap on the carburetor, and allowed gasoline to flow over the cut. Gasoline was used to prevent infection, and it did prevent infection. These items, the two on the inside, and the gasoline on the outside, made up the whole of our medicine cabinet.

That wasn’t totally true, because my dad would also collect certain plants and weeds that he knew to have medicinal use. Certain plants, for example, would help with menstrual cramps. Also, lots of people ate dandelions, and they were not too bad if you threw in some lambs quarter, and maybe a few potatoes, to cut the strong taste of the dandelions.

As my dad would collect and point out medicinal and edible plants and weeds to me, we did come across what he named at that time, “wild hemp” and he told me, “It makes people kind of crazy.” We left the wild hemp alone but there was one woman in the small community who everyone knew was, in fact, kind of crazy, and she was a large woman, big-boned. She lived alone, and everyone called her “Big Annie.”

Like everyone else in the community, Big Annie had examined the plants and weeds in the fields and in the woods to determine what was fit to eat and what was fit for medicine, and when she came across the wild hemp, she made an agricultural decision to use it, to shade her chickens. She didn’t know what it was, and as far as she was concerned, it was simply an excellent plant for shade use, for her hens. So, the wild hemp plants grew tall and provided excellent shade, and the chickens were happy, and Big Annie was happy and everything was going reasonably well, until one day, when the sheriff drove by.

Upon noticing a very large and obvious outdoor marijuana grow operation in plain view of the road he was driving on, the sheriff reportedly stopped and chopped down the plants. Big Annie was furious. She ran up and down the road, hollering at the sheriff, yelling at the neighbors, “They’re cutting down my chicken shade!”

On rare occasion and only when someone was very sick, did we call for Doc Martin to come around and make a house call. He would always leave with his chicken, for payment.

Ray adds on blackface minstrel shows:

Patent medicines were often sold in the same venue as minstrel shows in our town. Sometimes, a minstrel show would come to town on its own, and set up a big tent on an empty lot. Using shoe polish, white people would pose theatrically as black people. Although these shows stopped sometime in the 1930s in our area, the idea was to make make jokes through a questioning character called “Mr. Interlocutor.” At that time, blackface minstrelsy was so accepted that the obvious bigotry we see today was completely missed then.

Author’s end note: If you have not seen The Butterfly Circus, which I have posted before, I recommend that you find 20 minutes to see this inspirational film.

Photo by Steve Slocomb under Creative Commons license