Wednesday, January 6, 2010


A lot of people used to make a living traveling to “do” for other people. The Knife-sharpener and the pot-mender came around from time to time, as did the glasses mender. They all had a way with their craft, and carried the tools of their trade from town to town, and sometimes house to house.

The Grinder’s wagon would pull up, sometimes with things for sale---skillets and pots and spiders and other usefull utensils all a-clank on the wagon, inside and out. He’d wrestle the heavy round slice of stone to the ground, setting it up in the socket, securing its great weight before he took his seat in the saddle, feet on the treadle. Folks would line up with their knives and scissors and slingblades, passing the time of day as they watched the grinder work, his feet pumping fast for the hoes and shovels, more sedately for a prized knife, and more carefully still for the pairs of sewing scissors or shears or barber-snips. The round wheel spun and the sparks flew as he worked, and many a little boy crept close---closer, dared by his cohorts, as he reached out to “catch a spark” from the lively wheel.

A Pot-mender might have kept company with the Grinder on their rounds, with his own stock of potmetals and cooking pans. He had a way with a pan-sprung-a-leak; somehow those callused old hands could polish the edges of the hole, insert the tiniest silvery pin, snug tight the two teensy black rubber washers, one in and one out, and hand back a pan good for another decade’s worth of beans.


The Glasses-Mender was a gentler sort---a waist-coated gentleman with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles of his own, polished frame-glint and lens-shine to best advertise his skills. He had the most minutely-crafted little screwdrivers and pliers, with tweezers the size of rosemary leaves, and used them all with consummate skill---bending and splicing and replacing and screwing in microscopic screws no regular man could hold between his fingers, let alone fit into that tiny hole for twisting. It took him several days to revive and revamp the year’s worth of broken and armless and nose-rest-missing specs of all the gathered customers, and since he and the other two artisans were all male, they were seldom offered any hospitality past the use of an outhouse or a quick spigot-wash on somebody’s place or in back of a store.

The women who “traveled around,” however, were usually offered the shelter of a home, as well as their board whilst in the home. The most common of the roomer-and-boarders was the town schoolteacher, given what accommodations were possible---a spare room, or a share-room with the daughters of the house, even a shared bed in the more meager of the homes, whose pride in “doing their part” stretched their budgets and space almost past bearing.

Most families “took in the teacher” for a few weeks or perhaps a month of the term; she would move on to live with another family as the year progressed, taking her meals with the family, carrying the same biscuit-and-butter lunch in her own box or wrap as did the children of the house. I would imagine that having an educated young woman to visit for several weeks would have brought out the home-pride best in those housekeepers, with much cleaning and turning out of bedrooms and parlors and a closet, if there happened to be one to spare.

And how did the teachers take to such itinerant living, living out of a suitcase, as it were, all the school year, and learning that “potluck” has many meanings---manners and form dictated that a guest accept and be obliged by the hospitality of the house, so you slept where they put you and ate what was put in front of you.

By the time I was in school, most of the teachers were older women who had their own homes, or others who roomed with a wonderful older woman a few blocks from the school. They lived there, about eight or so of them, quite amicably for years---I try now to imagine the bright chatter and the meals together. In my working years, I could not have fathomed going home, sitting down with the newspaper or a novel or a cup of tea, and then just freshening up to await the gong’s summons to a supper cooked by someone else. Still sounds like a great thing.

There were also traveling Singing Teachers---their stints in other folks’ homes usually limited to a week, all through the school year, and to arbor-gatherings and Singing Schools and campground choruses in pleasant months. They taught shape-notes and tones and carried a little pitch-pipe to set the tune; the usual fare was hymns and the melodious sing-along songs of the day, as well as all the patriotic numbers sung with fervor and enthusiasm.

Deportment Teachers were secured for teaching the daughters of the more affluent---they lived with the family for several weeks, keeping day-to-day and moment-by-moment lessons, from sitting like a lady to walking properly to dress and grooming to speech and table manners. They seldom returned to the same family save for those with daughters of greatly-varying ages, and the younger group grew to their own age of manners-training.

Other women, whether they’d had nurses’ training or not, would do “maternity sitting” or “maternity staying” for new mothers the several weeks it took to “get back on their feet.” They tended child and mother, as they both took lots of naps and rested the clock around.
They might do a little “light cooking” but they did no laundry or housekeeping during their stay.

Laundry women did go house-to-house on “their” day of the week, washing and hanging out and ironing dawn to dusk, using the households’ appliances and detergents and clotheslines, though quite a few others did call for the baskets of clothes, washed them in their own homes, then delivered them back, clean, fresh-smelling and neatly folded.

Seamstresses would go live in other people’s houses for several weeks a season, to get the ladies of the house into their new wardrobes, especially for travels or off to college or a wedding. The scent of fresh-snipped cotton and silk and organza and of chalk and an ever-hot seam-iron would fill the allotted sewing room; the tables and bed and counters will be covered in patterns and lace and fabric and ribbon, and the floor would receive a snowfall of snipped thread and pinked edgings. A good “sempstress” was a prize, much as hairdressers came to be in later decades, to be coveted and claimed and almost-owned by their jealous employers.

But the one traveling worker I remember most lived right out of town; she’d make the rounds of almost the entire county, riding her bike for many years to those who needed her attentions. She had a unique and useful talent: she was a Knot Smoother. She could take your string, your variegated crochet-thread with its un-manageable snarl right there in the purple part, your fishing line that had knitted itself into tangles around a threatening hook, your big snarl of rubber bands---even a bird's nest of ten different colors of embroidery thread from the bottom of the basket, and sit down with them like petting a cat.

She’d smack her gum a little, adjust her glasses on her nose from time to time, and hand you back a neat skein or bundle or length or rolled-on-a-toilet-paper-roll hank of ribbon, as smooth and shining as new. When she'd finished all the untangling, she'd take all the ribbon into the house, remove the shade from a lamp, and "iron" the ribbon across the top of the lightbulb, running it gently back and forth like a shoeshine boy's rag. Way later, when I was in my teens, I and all my girlfriends took up wearing ponytails, and I taught them the lightbulb-iron trick.

And what that woman could do with a jewelry-box full of granny-knotted chains as delicate and stubborn as tangled hair! She just Knew How. And she was one of a kind---I don’t believe I’ve ever met or heard of anyone with that particular talent before or since. That’s too bad; we could use more knot-smoothing these days, I think. Of all kinds.


Tonja said...

I had no idea that there were so many different travelling workers! Now, I remember my Pop telling about the dentist who travelled around. And, he told about the doctor who travelled to his house and pulled someone's tonsils, which were promptly eaten by a chicken! GROSS!! I have read about travelling teachers. But, I never knew of any travelling workers. Wait, I take that back. The scissor sharpener comes to a fine jewelry store in town every year. And, I think a crystal restorer comes also. I reckon those don't count, though.
When I was younger, my Mom had a wonderful seamstress who loved to sew matching outfits for Mom and Joy and myself. She was a whiz at turning beautiful fabric into equally beautiful outfits. I loved to watch her work. She was very old. And, a store bought dress that didn't problem!

Keetha said...

A Knot Smoother. I've never heard of such but what an useful occupation!

Maggie Norman said...

Darcy has been working on my knifes all afternoon--sharpening perfectly and adding beeswax to all the wooden handles. Bet he would have loved to have had a traveling knife sharpener today.

Love as many as the snowflakes