By Norris Chambers
Those of us who attended the little country schools in the twenties and early thirties got considerable exercise scratching. We dealt with chiggers, fleas and other obnoxious
insects. But our biggest itch problem was the 7 year itch. Some of those who were better informed called it “scabies”. This terrible malady was caused by very tiny little creatures that burrowed under you skin and caused irritating itching. These itch spots eventually turned into ugly pimple-like sores, and not only looked bad and itched, but frequently got bumped and would bleed profusely.
The condition was very contagious. Someone got it from someone else, and then spread it all over the school, one victim at a time. The little itch mites crawled from one person to another by contact. One untreated case could spread over the whole room in a matter of a week or two.
What was the treatment for the itch? We knew of only one. I’m sure there were more
sophisticated ways of getting rid of it, but the poor folks in the country used what they
had, and it had worked for grandma and grandpa, and it would work well on us.
At the first sign of irritation, the body was greased from head to foot with hog lard and
sulfur, mixed to a glowing yellow color. A suit of long-handle underwear was slipped on, and it could not be removed for two weeks - not even for a bath. The bath part was no big deal because most country folks did very little bathing in the winter. But the long underwear and the sulfur mixture was uncomfortable. By the time the first week was up, the smell became almost unbearable. The second week, it was unbearable. With most of the students in the room covered with sulfur and the wood stove making it warm as toast, the smell was enough to discourage the most aggressive fly.
But there were times when the itch was cured and scratching was not in style. It was
during one of these periods that Clifton and I ordered some “itch powder” from the
Johnson Smith catalog. It cost a whole dime and came in a small envelope. The catalog
had said that it would cause some “interesting scratching”, but was harmless. When it
came, we anxiously opened the envelope and were quite shocked to find a mixture of
finely cut hair. Of course everyone knew that hair clippings from a home brew haircut did cause itching. But we were surprised to find that someone had thought to sell it for itch powder.
The tiny hair lengths really worked. A casual sprinkle of a small portion down the back of the neck of an unsuspecting victim brought immediate results. The seats in the school
room were in rows, with the desk of one seat forming the back for the one in front of it.
This made it very convenient for dipping a girl’s pigtails or hair braids in the ink well or
sprinkling a few pinches of itch powder down the back of her neck.
After the powder was released, the first symptom was a slight sensation along the upper back that brought a feeble rub with the back of the hand. In many cases the victim could not manage to get the hand far enough up and back to do a good rub on the affected area. Occasionally the affected person would slide up and down in the seat, rubbing the itching area against the seat back - or maybe it was a side to side motion. Of course this was hilariously funny to the one placing the powder and those around him who saw it. Pretty soon there was uncontrolled laughter and a stern question from the teacher. “What’s so funny back there, Norris?” There just wasn’t a good answer to a question like this.
As soon as some more trouble-makers found out that we had itch powder, they began to want some. Since Clifton and I were always looking for a way to commercialize, we kept quiet about the powder being only chopped up hair. We decided to manufacture a batch. We were not certain what type of hair was used, but presumed it was just plain human hair. Since we didn’t need a haircut at the time, we experimented with dog, cat, horse, goat and even cow hair. After a little trial and error, we found that it all worked pretty well, but we finally decided to use goat hair. There was plenty of it, and the goat didn’t seem to mind.
We tried cutting it with scissors, but found this to be a little slow. The next trial was with a sausage grinder. We put on the finest cutter we had and stuffed the opening full of goat hair. By turning the crank swiftly, pieces of hair came out. We gathered these and put them back a few times. Eventually, we had a pan of the finest itch powder we had ever seen. Actually, we had not seen any except the package we ordered. A hasty trial convinced us that we had a perfect product and we decided to proceed to the packaging phase.
Clifton had an aunt, on his mother’s side of the family, who had some sort of illness that
required her to take little pills that she called podofflin, or something like that. The pills
came in the cutest little brown bottles, about an inch in height and a half inch in diameter. The perfect package for our product. By digging through the trash piles and scrounging around the house, we came up with about a dozen of the little bottles, complete with the metal screw on lid. It was a simple matter to fill these with powder. We discussed whether we should make labels for the bottles, but decided that it might be better to keep the manufacturing business an underground operation. After filling the containers, we had enough left for another dozen or so bottles if we needed it. We put it in a jar and stored it on a shelf in the smoke house.
We sold our supply for ten cents a bottle, and pretty soon had made some welcome
money. In those days a dollar was very valuable. Some people in the community worked for 50 cents a day, when they could find work. We felt like rich folks with out new found business. But with angry teachers and strict “no itch powder” rules, our market dried up for that term. We discussed taking our business to other nearby schools, but never did. We got involved in other activities, and never went back to producing itch powder.
We did produce “sneeze” powder with the same machinery. We had some weeds that
produced small seeds that made you sneeze when you sniffed them. We took these and fed them through our sausage grinder, and by pouring the output through several times, we had a nice smooth powder that would produce a nice sneeze by most folks when we blew it into the air in their vicinity. We sold a few bottles of this, but it was never as popular as our itch powder.
Looking back at all the things we did, I realize that the itch powder project was a bad
thing. I could say that my consciousness really hurts when I think about it, but when I
remember it I get so tickled that I forget to be sorry. Our philosophy was: “Whatever you do, have fun!”
In case any of you youngsters try this, happy scratching.