From the stock market crash in 1929 to President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt’s New Deal, the United States of America went through a kind of hell called “The Great Depression.” Few are still living today who remember those years of starvation, the closing of businesses, people living under bridges and drinking a slop called “soup” at the soup kitchen that sprang up in every community.
The wolf was not only “at the door” of countless homes, so were the “shut-off men” ready to plunge a home into darkness. The hit song of the day was, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Into that frightening era I arrived on a steamy hot Sunday afternoon of Sept. 3, 1933. Another mouth to feed for my parents who had considered their family quite complete, with three children, ages 9 to 15!
We didn’t starve because Mother always had a huge vegetable garden, a pen filled with chickens (and a rooster who must have delighted our neighbors by crowing every morning at 4 a.m.). We also had a grape arbor across our entire back yard and a cherry tree. Mother was always canning something.
My father worked for his longtime friend in a clothing store. This was unfortunate because nobody had the money to buy new clothes. Each day, they awaited the death knell of the store. Finally, one noon, Dad was informed sadly, that the day had finally arrived to close the store for good.
With six dependents to house, feed and clothe, he was a stricken man, who at the age of 47, must find a way out of his acute problems. He stopped off at the drugstore owned by a pal he had gone to school with and while expecting only sympathy, he found a surprise awaiting him!
The druggist had formulated an iron tonic that said he did not have time to introduce it to the public. He offered to sell packets of it and boxes of bottles to my father, whom, he believed could mix it in our kitchen at night, pour it into sterilized bottles and sell it door-to-door.
The idea of a new endeavor interested Dad, so he went for it.
Mother, too, was in favor of the new enterprise and offered her largest kettle for stirring up the vile-smelling panacea. Dad found an old doctor’s kit at a thrift store and each night, after filling the bottles with a new supply, wrapped them and stowed them into the bag, setting off happily the next morning to invigorate and/or purge the countryside.
That was the famous era, when patent medicine was king. Medicine shows abounded all across our land in every vacant lot and/or on the public streets. They professed to cure everything from fallen arches to pneumonia. There may have been a suspicious amount of alcohol lacing those bottles but the public, so dispirited over life in the depression, somehow found a way to scrape up a dollar for “another bottle of the wonder drug of the day.”
Dad named his contribution to mankind, “Vitona” and it caught on! His customers began knocking at our front door “for another bottle of that great medicine ‘Vitona’.” Mother was cast in the role of saleslady. She was especially embarrassed when men frequented our porch and unashamedly declared “Vitona” had “restored their powers!” Even the ladies got into the act. Those who were formerly pale and wan, who in other days could not have found the strength to make it up our front steps, now appeared to shoot out of their cars like rockets and with spring in their steps, make it to our door for “that great medicine that cured my ‘female complaints!’” I was unusually in a play pen near the door and learned many long and interesting words from those testimonials.
Lurking in the back of my parents’ minds was the possibility someone could become ill or die from their tonic. They discussed this openly with the druggist. “Shucks,” said its creator. “It’s just a harmless iron tonic and sometimes, a potent cathartic. Quit your worrying!”
Well, the “Pure Food and Drug Act” agency was worrying, also, and they called a halt to those tonics, any of which were found to be dangerous. My father quickly left the manufacturing of “Vitona” and was again able to make use of his artistic talents, for which he had studied in three art schools. By then, people could again afford the luxury of buying the beautiful landscapes painted by J.L. Miller.
He also began working as a landscape architect, drawing plans for the shrubbery and trees surrounding the new houses that began springing up when times were better.
It is my contention that those tonics of the depression years encouraged the down-trodden to “keep going” until times got better. Years went by by and still once in awhile an old customer of Dad’s would either write or come by the house hoping he or she could still by “Vitona” and he saw to it that there were always a few bottles “made up” and ready for them.
Those who didn’t just sit on their front porches and lament the Great Depression, but got busy and found ways to survive, were proud to have “made it through.” I am proud to remember that my parents were among those who put their shoulders to the wheel and managed to keep a roof over our heads and a chicken in every pot for Sunday dinner.
With the coming of World War II, jobs were readily available in war plants all across our land. We paid a price for the new-found prosperity in the loss of far too many of our young heroes and heroines. Life does seem to go on, doesn’t it?
Jean Mickle is a local resident who writes columns for the Record-Herald.