"The Grit" was the forerunner of today's tabloids. It was published weekly and sold door to door, usually by a neighborhood boy, the price was five cents. It wasn't filled with gossip and dirt about celebrities as are the tabloids today, but it did have unusual, believe-it-or-not stories, and page after page of advertisements. Every issue of The Grit, had an advertisement for "Cloverine Salve." The lid of the tin container had an art nouveau design motif around the edge with a green four-leaf clover in the center. Pictures of the wonderful prizes children could win by selling the heal-all ointment were eye-catching. One could win yo-yos, dolls, baseball gloves, bats and balls. The more you sold the bigger and better the prize, "Daisy" air rifles, "Radio Flyer" wagons and even bicycles could be won. Through the eyes of children growing up during the Great Depression, this was a great opportunity to get toys they otherwise could not have.
I really wanted to sell Cloverine Salve, but Mama said, "Absolutely-No! There has to be a catch to it. The only thing free in this world is air and Water, besides you'd get stuck with a lot of Cloverine Salve and I don't even use it." Mama's heal-all ointment was Iodex, a black, greasy ointment which came in a small milk glass jar. It left a permanent, ugly, yellow stain on anything it touched. No matter how hard we scrubbed with hot water and Lava soap it wouldn't come off it just had to wear off The lure of the Cloverine Salve prizes really tempted me, but I couldn't disobey Mama.
Some time after that I saw an advertisement in a magazine, with an offer for a free book. As I have always a great passion for books, I was so excited that the only thing I saw in the ad was FREE book. I convinced myself that Mama couldn't object to me getting a book. It was free and I didn't have to sell anything to get it, so there was no need to get her permission. I printed my name and address in the blanks according to the instructions. I addressed an envelope to the "Book of the Month Club" and it was ready to be mailed.
One of my many chores was to make a daily trip to the Post Office to get the mail from Box 107. Ras, my English Setter, always went with me he, waited patiently, on the steps while I went inside. I bought a three-cent stamp, licked it, placed it, carefully, on the envelope and pounded it with the side of my fist, then dropped it in the mail slot. My letter to the "Book of the Month Club" to get my free book was on its way.
Amy Wathen and Iva Swisher Were grouchy, scowling, ill-tempered old maids. They worked at the service desk in the Marion Post Office for as long as I can remember. I never once saw a smile on either of their faces. I called them crabby Amy and grumpy Iva. They read every post card that came into or went out of the Post Office in Marion. Crabby Amy read magazines before she put them in peoples' boxes. Once she marked her pace in our "Saturday Evening Post" with an envelope addressed to her with her grocery list written on the back.
I eagerly waited for my free book to come. I kept looking for the "parcel too large for box" card to appear in our box. After about a week, I started asking at the window, "Is there a package for Mildred Yandell?" I asked the same question every day. After a few days they started giving me glaring looks as only they could give, but that didn't stop me, I still kept asking. I just couldn't understand why grumpy Iva and crabby Amy got so testy. I had asked only once a day for three weeks, well, maybe twice some days. Finally Grumpy Iva yelled, "Young lady, I've told you we will put a card In Mr. Yandell's box when a package comes, so don't you ask again!" It seemed as if I had been waiting for months. I was afraid the "Book of the Month Club" was not going to honor their promise to send a free book to me, so I became resigned to that fact.
One day when I stopped by the Post Office after school I found a surprise. There was the long awaited, green card! It said. "Parcel too large for box - Please present card at window." I took the card to the window and smiled as I handed it to grumpy Iva. Her face was expressionless as she handed the heavy package to me. I thanked her, rushed out the door and started running towards home. As my books and the package were so heavy, I stopped and sat down on the curb to rest. While resting, I decided to open the package. As I was removing the big book from the box, a surge of guilt went through my little body that I shall never forget, only then did I realize that I might have done something wrong. There it was, "Old Jules" by Mari Sandoz. It was so big- the size of the family Bible, and just as thick. Now, what was I going to do with it? When I got home I put it with the other books and tried to forget about it. The next day when Ras and I went to the Post Office, lo and behold there was another green card in the box. It was another book, "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck. What to do now? Put it with "Old Jules" and try to forget about it. There was a card in that box asking me which book I wanted next. I sent it back to the "Book of the Month Club" and told them, "Please do not send another book to me." Thinking that would be the end of my troubles I felt relieved, but my relief was short lived, bills for the "Good Earth" started coming, then threatening letters. The "Book of the Month Club" was really mad at me and Mama was going to be too.
I became so frightened I got the books out of the bookcase and told Mama what I had done. I could tell by the bulging veins in her neck that she was furious, but she didn't say one word, she just let me stew for a few days. My nieces were crying, for fear that I would be put in jail, I was too, but I was more fearful of what God and Mama would do to me. Waiting for Mama to mete out my punishment was sheer torture. I'm not really sure what happened to "The Good Earth", I didn't ask, I just wanted the case closed. I never saw it again so I suppose she sent it back. I do know what happened to "Old Jules," Mama made me read it! Believe me that book was not written for children's enjoyment, but when I wasn't doing my homework or chores I was reading that Free book. The only thing I remember about it is that it was big, it had Old Jules' picture on the jacket, it had a zillion words in it and my Mama made me read every one of them.
"Old Jules" served two purposes first, it was a constant and painful reminder of my transgression. Second, it was used as a booster seat for the grandchildren to sit on at the dining table when we had family gatherings.
Advertisements in magazines and tabloids, today, are as enticing as those which appeared in the "Grit" so many years ago. There's clubs for VCR tapes, Compact Discs and yes, book clubs. I suppose those clubs are all right, for some people, but as for me, I don't join clubs anymore.
My passion for books has not waned and I am always pleased to get anything supposedly free. I realize Mama was right about air and water being the only free things in this world, but that was in 1935. Today even they are not free and I am reminded of that fact as I write checks to pay for the water I drink and the electricity to cool and filter the air that I breathe.
Old Jules by Mari Sandoz is a memoir of her childhood as a member of a Swiss-German Nebraska pioneer family. It was published in 1935, to rave reviews by such literary luminaries as
Bernard DeVoto, Robert Van Gelder, and Stephen Vincent Benet.
I found a reprint copy of the book, published in 1962, in Mom's book collection. I brought
it home and read it. Although it would have been a weighty tome for a child to deal with, it is
an excellent book, and a fine example of memoir writing.
Reading this story, I was reminded of my own exeperience with ordering "Free" things. In response, I wrote about a "Free Model Hearing Aid."
Jim Wilson 9-1-2001