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Ultimate Old Threat in Being Given to the Rag Man

Updated on December 17, 2017
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

Photo of my family back in the 1950s

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.

Were you ever threatened by being given to the ragman?

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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 infrequent 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.

A pencil sketch of a girl getting a spanked bottom.
A pencil sketch of a girl getting a spanked bottom. | Source

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 when 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! (Smile)

This looked similar to the paddle that Sister Lucas employed on rare occasions.
This looked similar to the paddle that Sister Lucas employed on rare occasions. | Source

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 probably did horrible things to bad children and that was enough for us. We did not need to know any more.

Rag and bone man in Dublin, Ireland.
Rag and bone man in Dublin, Ireland. | Source

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.

Rag and bone man in Croydon, London, May 2011.
Rag and bone man in Croydon, London, May 2011. | Source

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 re-worn 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.

Clothes rationing actually took place in Britain during WWII and there was a "Make Due and Mend" campaign that encouraged people to be thrifty. Many of those thrifty traits existed then on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


My mother actually remembered 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 listening to this short video, this is what my mother interpreted as "Reks...Reks"

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 ha!

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

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Old Rags into New

In actuality rag recycling still exists today in many parts of the world. The picture below shows workers in Britain in the year 1942. They are working at salvaging old rags and ultimately turning it into new cloth.

Old Rags Into New Cloth- Salvage in Britain, April 1942
Old Rags Into New Cloth- Salvage in Britain, April 1942 | Source

Rag Rugs

The making of rag rugs was a popular way to repurpose cloth or linens that no longer functioned as first intended.

Rug constructed out of fabric strips cut from second use t-shirts and bed linens.
Rug constructed out of fabric strips cut from second use t-shirts and bed linens. | Source

Patchwork Quilts

People making patchwork quilts could often use scraps of cloth and fashion it into something that was not only usable but also pretty.

handmade quilt for a queen size bed
handmade quilt for a queen size bed | Source

Even today many clothes items not deemed saleable from thrift shops or other stores are often bundled up and sold by weight. Other countries are happy to purchase this and rework the salvaged items making it into something new.

So while the old threat of encouraging kids to be obedient by threatening them with being given to a rag man was a short lived moment in time, the recycling of rags is serious business even today.

More modern rag and bone men

Where we lived when the ragman threat still worked!

Oconomowoc, Wisconsin:
Oconomowoc, WI 53066, USA

get directions

© 2009 Peggy Woods


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    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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

      C E Clark 

      4 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 imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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.

    • profile image

      Doug from Shillington pa 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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!

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      7 years ago

      Peggy a fun and interesting read - no doubt it wasn't back at the time for your brothers. I don't ever remember a ragman etc but you always never wanted the other parent to find out if you played up - that was the downfall once that happened. The boogeyman was probably the scariest thing back then.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi again Soozn,

      You are so right. Too many people sue at the drop of a hat these days. Not how we were brought up...that's for sure!

      I'll admit...being given to gypsies sounds like more fun than being given to the rag man! Ha!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi Peggy


      No one in those good ole' days would have thought of tampering with foods & products like they do today. Also no one would have sued for any little reason if someone made a mistake. My mother used to threatened us with " selling us to the gypsies" when we misbehaved. I remember thinking it might have been fun to ride in a caravan and be part of a circus...LOL

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Soozn,

      It would seem that we had many of the same experiences in our past. Yes...the cream was at the top of the milk and my mother and grandmother put it to good use in making delicious meals.

      I'll bet that the milk deliveries today have sealed tops to keep people from tampering with them. Back in the "good old days" no one seemed to be concerned with those types of things. Too bad things have changed so much in that regard!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Peggy- Yes we had milk delivered in glass bottles with the cardboard tops. Remember the days when the cream was at the top, before homogenization? We also had a bakery delver bread and other goodies. The Fuller brush man came by, too. I remember my little brother used to call him the "full of" brush man.

      We still have milk delivery here Colorado--you can get it in returnable glass bottles, too. I used to get it when my kids were teens, but now I am alone and do not drink enough milk for a weekly delivery.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello Soozn,

      We had the men who sharpened knives and also scizzors. We also had the milk delivered to the door with just little cardboard inserts at the top. My mother would put out the glass empties and write a note as to how many refills she wanted each week. Wonder if you also had the Fuller Brush man come by? Oh....the good old days!

      So happy you liked this Rag Man hub and also the one about the lovely sculptures in Loveland. You certainly live in a beautiful area of the country!!!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi Peggy

      thanks for the great walk down memory lane.

      I grew up in New Jersey in the 1950's and remember a rag man coming around the neigborhood with a cart to sell rags! We had a knife sharpener come around, too.

      I was surprised to see your photos from Loveland, Colorado-- I live in the next town over in Fort Collins. I really enjoyed all the photos.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello William,

      Ah yes.....the milkman. The bottles were delivered with that little cardboard topping and one would save the empties to be put out and picked up when a new delivery would be made.

      I don't specifically remember the knife sharpening men but knew of their existence. My mother DEFINITELY remembers the ice men! One of those boys doing it back then to earn extra money turned out to be her husband (my father) years later!

      Thanks for your comments!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Great hub, Peggy W. Your story mirrors my own to a large extent, only it wasn't the ragman that my mother threatened to pawn me off to. I kind of remember the ragmen, but I remember the man with the knife sharpener, the iceman and the milkman much better. When I was very young they were drawn by horse and wagon. Kirk Douglas, star of "Spartacus" and many other great movies, titled his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son." In my family, my mother was the disciplinarian, but sometimes threatened having my father take the belt to me. I only remember him doing so once.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi stephie, Afraid I cannot answer that for you as it occurred in my mother's age bracket. I only grew up hearing about it. Also depends upon where you grew up, I suppose.

      If anyone can help stephie with a date, please respond. Thanks!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I remember the ragman. We sat on the ash cans and watcher him go by he had one horse and the ashmen and garbagemen had two horses. Anyone know what year he no longer came through the allies?

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello DjBryle Works,

      Actually I think these parenting methods DID make us better individuals as you said. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Mardi,

      So it was the Hutterites in Canada verses the rag man in Wisconsin. Funny! Amazing the things that stick in our memories while growing up. Pretty smart on our parents part, don't you think? Ha!

      Guess many of us had similar experiences even if the threats were slightly different. Enjoyed hearing about yours. Thanks for your comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi G-Ma,

      You are right! Many similarities between our families! We also mended sock holes using a lightbulb. Had forgotten about that.

      The rags were probably used in lieu of curlers but since my hair was curly, I never had that done. As a matter of fact........WHY my mother decided to give me a permanent is a mystery. I must have wanted one? All I remember is that my hair which was naturally curly at the time was SO CURLY after the home permanent that it was just about impossible to comb through. Some of the hair was actually cut off to lessen the pain of trying to get through that corkscrew frizziness! Never again did I ever have a permanent.

      After Dr. Spock, etc. spankings were no longer in mode. Now people would be accused of child abuse! How times change!

      Thanks for your additions to this hub.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi shamelabboush, Glad that this story brightened your day and made you laugh. Those of us left in our family that remember this now laugh about it also. Thanks for your comment.

    • profile image

      DjBryle Works 

      9 years ago

      Oh, the rag man has somehow made us better individuals who knows the importance of great values! LOL! They helped our parents a lot! =)

      Wonderful hub! Thanks for sharing =)

    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas


      HAHA - This must have been a parenting strategy of the times. On our farm the biggest threat was going to be dropped of with the Hutterites. In Canada they are like the Amish and live without electricity, radio, TV (b&w at that time) or phones, etc. Everyone works on the farm in some capacity and they also have very strict dress codes.

      One day my sister and I wouldn't stop harping on each other about something, likely who was doing what chores, and my Mom and Dad made us get in the car and started to head that direction. My sister and I were absolutely terrified and started blubbering and promising to be good kids. Dad finally turned around and went home- we all did chores without complaining after that.

      Ditto on the spanking!

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 

      9 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      yep, we must have been neighbors, am German ,went to Parocial school and wore all handmade clothes, had my hair curled in strips of rags..I still can't figure that one out and mom isn't able to remember to tell me how, now, we even hand mended sock holes using a light bulb to put the sock on where the hole was....Great hub...G-Ma :O) Hugs (oh and the spankings for sure)

    • shamelabboush profile image


      9 years ago

      This is very funny really. I was laughing thru the whole story especially the basement story :) Nice memories...

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Melody,

      A funny memory at that! LOL Thanks for the comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Teresa,

      I guess the reason I do not have those memories is that we were a little more isolated in the country. Our potato peels went into the compost pile for the garden. The other garbage not useful for composting was burned. Thanks for your comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Pete,

      Did you proudly keep track of the swats? So....this rag man story resonates with you first hand. Thanks for commenting.

    • Melody Lagrimas profile image

      Melody Lagrimas 

      9 years ago from Philippines

      Great memories :).

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Rag and bone man, yep; also the man who collected potato peels for the pigs.

    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 

      9 years ago

      We still had a rag man come around until I was about seven. I also remember the paddles quite well; I received swats from many different kinds.


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