Ultimate Old Threat in Being Given to the Rag Man

Photo of my family back in the 1950's

Our family back then.  My brother holding the candle was in honor of his First Holy Communion.  We were older at this point and the rag man threat no longer worked.
Our family back then. My brother holding the candle was in honor of his First Holy Communion. We were older at this point and the rag man threat no longer worked. | Source

The ultimate threat!

Besides the threat..."Just WAIT until your father comes home!"... the absolute ultimatum that my mother used to occasionally employ to make we three kids behave better was her threat of giving us to the rag man.

Being the eldest and a girl, I honestly do not remember ever being threatened, but my younger brothers were told that on several occasions.

One time my mother was at her wits end and actually picked up the telephone in our kitchen to make the call to the rag man. Of course we learned later that this was a ruse, but at the time it was a horrible experience!

I vividly remember crying and pleading with her to "PLEASE do not give my brothers away!" They began crying also. It was a medley of the three of us crying and sobbing and promising to behave better that resulted in her putting the phone down. I remember telling her amidst wiping my tears that I would try my best to help my brothers mind her and act better.

What misbehavior by my brothers caused this episode I no longer remember. Just being small, energetic and adventurous boys was probably enough on occasion to tip the balance of good behavior in the other direction. That, and the fact that the three of us were all born in slightly less than 6 years was enough to keep my mother not only busy but sometimes frazzled.


Were you ever threatened by being given to the ragman?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Other threats were used by my parents to keep us in line
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Rag and Bone Men

Did your parents ever use tactics similar to this to get you to behave better when you were a child?

  • Yes...just a different threat that also turned out to be funny in later years.
  • No
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More modern rag and bone men

The more usual method that my mother utilized was to threaten with telling our father about things going amiss (i.e., not minding her) when he would come home from work.

Being scolded by my mother was one thing, but his deeper and more powerful voice was another!

Back in those days, spanking was an accepted form of punishment and those duties were always delegated to my father. The anticipation of being marched down the basement steps and dropping our pants and being swatted on our behinds was almost worse than the actual deed. Of course the scolding that accompanied the corporal punishment made for a lasting impression.

School days...

Sister Lucas, the principal of the parochial school that we attended was, in addition, the school's disciplinarian. She was no bigger than a minute and except for her flowing habit would have appeared even smaller. Sister Lucas had her wooden "Board of Education " which occasionally was swung on the offending (mostly boys) rear ends at the front of the class. When those boys got home, they would be punished again by their parents if the parents were informed.

Of course some of the boys considered it a badge of honor to have gotten a lick from the Board of Education and they would actually keep count.

Those were the days!

But getting back to the rag man...

As children my brothers and I had never seen nor heard of a rag man except for my mother's use of calling him. The tone in her voice was enough to scare us!

Just like the bogeyman, we did not question the fact that this was one man we never wanted to meet, much-less have to depart our family and go and live with him.

The rag man was some nebulous monster of a man that did horrible things to bad children and that was enough for us. We did not need to know any more.

As we got a little older and other forms of punishment meant more (like being grounded and not allowed to meet with our friends outside of school) the rag man threat slowly disappeared and we heard no more of that ogre.

We can laugh now about it.

In reality, where my mother grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rag men actually existed.

My mother was born in the mid-1920s and the Great Depression took place not long after that. The depression greatly affected the way people lived, and waste of almost any kind was discouraged. People just naturally recycled everything that they could.

Many clothes were homemade, and even if purchased in a store, things were patched and reworn until there was little left to salvage. Clothes were also passed from child to child as they outgrew things.

This was the normal practice for almost everyone back then, especially in the thrifty German neighborhood where my mother grew up.

She actually remembers rag men coming down the streets in their horse drawn carts calling out what sounded like "Reks.........Reks!" to her ears.

My grandmother and the other women who lived within earshot would happily gather up whatever they deemed useless for personal use and take the rags to the street to be picked up by the various rag men who would come through the neighborhoods every so often.

In my mother's young mind, these rag men presented a sight that evoked some fear in her thoughts. She had no idea where these scraps of cloth ended up nor why these men would collect them in the first place. Where did they go? She did not even want to know.

She enlisted that memory of those seemingly unkempt looking raspy throat-ed men roaming the streets in their horse drawn wagons piled high with rags of all descriptions to draw upon when she needed to employ a different way to get our attention if things were getting out of control.

Being given to the rag man was the ultimate threat that achieved better behavior for a period of time in our home. Ah........memories! Ha!


Where we lived when the ragman threat still worked!

A markerOconomowoc, Wisconsin -
Oconomowoc, WI 53066, USA
[get directions]

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Comments 30 comments

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 2 years ago from Houston, Texas Author

Hi Au fait,

My mother must have had some fun with this "threat" when we were youngsters knowing that it was a ruse on her part. Reading about how close your siblings were...your mother was certainly a busy lady! So your sister would have traded you for a horse. Funny! Ah...the good old days! Thanks for your votes, pin and share. Wonder how many others have memories like ours?


Au fait profile image

Au fait 2 years ago from North Texas

We had a junk man who came around now and then. We lived in the country on a farm, so we all stayed pretty busy most of the time. Rarely my mother would make the threat of telling our father. Most of the time she dealt with whatever was happening herself. There were 5 of us, the first 4 just a year apart each and them me much younger than the others. She said I was her 'change of life baby.'

My mother never threatened to give or send any of us away, but my sister closest to me in age used to threaten to trade me to our Great Uncle Harry for a horse. He was a horse breeder/trader/farmer, and my favorite uncle while he was alive.

Enjoyed reading this great story about times gone by. Voted up, interesting, pinned to Awesome Hubpages, and shared with my followers.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas Author

Hi Doug from Shillington pa,

Obviously the service the ragmen provided was good but I wonder how many children were scared by the threat of being given (or captured, in your point of reference) to the ragmen? Things have changed since those times of bygone days with the horses and carts. Thanks for your comment.


Doug from Shillington pa 4 years ago

I vividly remember the rag man . I and other children would run and hide for fear of being taken by the rag man or given to him. Yes, a horse drawn cart. And a net to catch children. Surprised no one has written a book about the rag man


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas Author

Hi Billy,

Spankings were far and few between back then...only a very few that I can actually remember in our home. We didn't need a boogeyman...we had the ragman as the ultimate threat. Ha!


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