The Hawkers Part 2

Last week we looked at the Hawkers, Rag Merchants, Rag Men, travelling Salesmen that worked across rural Australia, Leone continues with ladies wear.

I remember the year when the ladies showed great interest in a new underwear material and it was passed around gaining many favourable comments. It was called ‘swami!’ All these fabrics preceded the advent of synthetic materials. Nylon stockings were many years away so stockings were manufactured from silk or the more, practical lisle.

There were skirts with attached bodices for girls, the latter to be let down as we grew. The boys were large, lined pants made from serge or tweed. Like the girls’ clothes, they had to last for most of the school years, so they were adjusted with braces. Small lads had to wear them with the waistbands up high on their chests, lots of slack in the back and with the legs going down well behind the knees, til they gradually grew into them, they were worn summer and winter! Boys didn’t ‘graduate’ into long pants until they were about fourteen years of age. How easier and more comfortable to wear today’s t-shirts, jeans, shorts and track-suits. For boys there were long grey, navy or brown ‘golf socks with coloured patterned tops and long white ones for girls. They were not elasticised in those days, so we wore garters made from elastic to keep them up. If they were too loose the socks fell down around your ankles, if too tight, the elastic would cut deep into your legs. Short socks did not arrive until the ’40s’ with the ‘Bobby’ socks craze. Some of the cases contained damask tablecloths, face washers, towels, twill sheeting huckaback and linen tea­towels, There was unbleached calico too, for making sheets and pillow cases and like unbleached twill if left on the line or spread on the grass on frosty nights became pristine white.

Unbleached calico was always in demand by the fisherfolk as it was used for making their ‘oil skins-‘. Dad used to sew his on our old Werthiem treadle sewing machine, using double unbleached calico. To make them water-proof, the coats, looking like huge shirts without buttoned up fronts, were lightly tanned then painted all over with a mixture of 50% boiled linseed oil and a small amount of paraffin. They resembled large scarecrows as they hung to dry but they were strong and probably just as water­proof as today’s plastic ones.

We kids would wait patiently whilst the women bargained and generally tried to beat down the rag man; our ‘piece de resistance’ was, still to come, the suitcase containing the haberdashery items. For us it seemed forever before the lid was opened to reveal a conglomeration of black and white elastic, wooden reels of sewing cotton, safety pins, sewing needles, crochet hooks, knitting needles pf bone tortoise shell and steel. The womenfolk were not too keen on the latter as they were sure they caused rheumatism. There were thimbles and bodkins, press studs, hooks and eyes, bobby pins, hat pins with coloured knobs and long hair pins for: ladies who wore their hair in a bun. Plaited hanks of darning wool and fine thread for mending stockings. We would feast our eyes on it all, for our trips to shops out of Mallacoota were limited. How we loved to see the tape, bias binding and coloured ribbons, georgette head scarves and men’s long white or checked neck scarves. The men’s handkerchiefs were huge in those days but like the tails of their shirts were shortened to save material later during the War Years, handkerchiefs were reduced in size for the same reason. I remember the years when Shirley Temple was America’s popular child actress, coloured silk handkerchiefs with photos of her printed into the corners, found their way into the Hawker’s van and Mione and I were delighted when our Mother bought us one each. The Haberdashery suitcase was a real serendipity of surprises like the ladies belts and aprons of brightly coloured cretonne along with men’s suspenders for keeping up their socks, cuff and arm links. The latter was an essential part of men’s dressing and worn above the elbows to keep up the long shirt sleeves so the cuffs couldn’t be in the way. There were gold and silver expanding types whilst others were made from coloured woven silk, covering the round elastic inside. There was room in that case for shoe horns, tape measures, buttons for strapped shoes, wooden coat hangers and moth balls. We were absolutely fascinated with it all especially the times when watches and other trinkets were included and the Hawker kept an eagle eye on the boys who often pretended to ‘pocket’ them.

Once Mum purchased some wonderful, shiny material called Jap silk to make pyjamas and kimonos .for us, the latter were of a tomato red
colour and we paraded in those creations:,thinking we were ‘it and a bit’. It must have been a big decision for Mum to· buy that fabric as money was not plentiful in those Depression Years. The women were cautious with their purchasing and would often barter the summer fruit from their orchards for socks and other items. One Hawker spoke of his big family and I visualised him taking those apples and pears home to his poor children. I would feel guilty because Mum did not seem to buy much from him; I guess she had to think of her ‘poor family,’ too. Years later I learned that his ‘poor children’ had all received college educations and he had retired quite comfortably. I have often wondered since though, about that fruit. Perhaps he off loaded it somewhere along the track. (to some ‘poor children’ I would hope.)

I vaguely remember the Indian Hawker’s covered wagon outside what was then Mallacoota House and heard Dad speak of Bugganuuong Singh who in his wagon plied the roads in the early part of the century. With only about a dozen families living in Mallacoota it is a a wonder that any of them bothered taking the long trek in from Genoa to visit us, so we were fortunate, indeed.

One of the Salesmen was P.K. Tradd the name in bold letters on each of his cases. He was commonly referred to by the local boys as ‘Juicy Fruit’ which like P.K.’s was a popular chewing gum at that time. Mr Tradd was still on the road during the 1940s but by then he had acquired a Ford Pilot. Then there was the Hameson Brothers, Sam and Les who were Russian. It was mostly Les who did the ‘run’ he was the more flamboyant of the two and certainly more worldly than the other Hawkers. He was a dark haired handsome man with plenty of charisma and an abundance of quips… and the women were no match for him. When there were other women around to give morale support, one of the younger ones would answer with a smart reply, edged on by the others with encouraging prods of their elbows but he always had the last say! He impressed the men too, with his prowess as a marksman. Many tales have been told of his ability at shooting with a .22 revolver (pistol), of tins placed on fence posts, knocking them off whilst driving at full speed. The men would often throw tins at random for him to shoot and he was never known to miss any.
Rod Condon from Bairnsdale travelled for Rosenbrocks from 1936 to 1940.
Rosenbrocks had a drapery store in . Bairnsdale’s Bailey Street (about where Magnum Video is now situated). I believe Foards bought them out and later closed the shop down. In the early days, Rod drove a 1936 Ford with pull-out drawers at the back and he once told me that it took him nine hours to get from Bairnsdale to Genoa. Later Rosenbrocks purchased a 2-ton Bedford van with an aisle up the centre. This was certainly more sophisticated and with dresses hanging up, instead pf in suitcases t it was the nearest thing to a shop for we children. The van was very high and Rod said he remembered Mione, then a small child, standing beneath the racks of dresses.

I can only remember the Gypsies visiting Mallacoota a few times during my childhood. I guess it was too far from the Princes Highway but we always got ‘wind’ of their impending arrival and although quite unnecessary, shut all the house doors and windows and locked the shed. Sometimes in these depression years we would have men coming to the door offering their services as knife and scissor sharpeners.

Later during the 1950s Salesmen came from Melbourne, Morwell and Bega. By then the roads were much improved and a day’s shopping could be made to Bairnsdale or Bega; so a lot of the magic went out of the Hawker’s visits. I remember the two Lebanese brothers who came from Melbourne. One of them always carried a couple of towels over his arm and coming through the gate he would announce ‘sheets and towels’. Unfortunately because of his accent and habit of speaking quickly, the words ‘sheets’ sounded like something else so he was nicknamed ‘ ……… and towels’ by one of our lovable wits, ‘Bulla’ Allan. Sammy had a bad trait, if you did not buy from him, he would depart, swearing loudly and then in silent contempt; leave your gate open. Nery frustrating in those times when cattle roamed freely around the town.)

I guess rising costs and the fact that we did not rely on them anymore, led to the demise of the Hawkers. We had entered a new era, but· I have only to close my eyes for
moment and I am back in the 1930s seeing the womenfolk takeoff their aprons hear barking dogs and excited, laughing cbildren all ready to greet the Hawker as he comes up
the track. They certainly left their mark on Australia’s rural history.

Leone Pheeney

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