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ENGLAND
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Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many I had not thought death had undone, so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet Flowed up the hill and down King William Street, To where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

-- T S Eliot 1922



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London's PeopleThe Sellers of Corn Plasters
Posted on Sep 08, 2002 - 01:23 AM by Bill McCann

In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew has left us a detailed picture of London street life in the mid nineteenth century. An enormous amount of material was sold on the streets. Some of the best selling were herbal remedies and other home-made pharmaceutical products. This is Mayhew's account of the corn cures on offer.



Of The Street-Sellers of Corn-Salve
The street purveyors of corn-salve, or corn-plaster, for I heard both words used, are not more than a dozen in number; but, perhaps, none depend entirely upon the sale of corn-salve for a living. As is the wont of the pattering class to which they belong, these men make rounds into the country and into the suburbs, but there are sometimes, on one day, a dozen "working the main drags" (chief thoroughfares) of London: there are no women in the trade. The salve is most frequently carried on a small tray, slung in front of the street professional; but sometimes it is sold at a small stall or stand. Oxford-street, Holborn, Tottenham-court-road, and Whitechapel, are favourite localities for these traders; as are Blackfriars road and Newington causeway on the Surrey side of the Thames. On the Saturday evening the corn-salve sellers resort to the street markets. The patter of these traders is always to the same purport (however differently expressed) - the long-tested efficacy and the unquestionable cheapness of their remedies.

The vendors are glib and unhesitating; but some, owing, I imagine, to a repetition of the same words, as they move from one part of a thoroughfare to another, or occupy a pitch, have acquired a monotonous tone, little calculated to impress a street audience - to effect which a man must be, or appear to be, in earnest. The patter of one of these dealers, who sells cornsalve on fine evenings, and works the public houses, "with anything likely" on wet evenings, is, from his own account, in the following words:

"Here you have a speedy remedy for every sort of corn! Your hard corn, soft corn, blood corn, black corn, old corn, new corn, wart, or bunion, can be safely cured in three days! Nothing further to do but spread this salve on a piece of glove-leather, or wash-leather, and apply it to the place. Art and nature does the rest. Either corns, warts, or bunions, cured for one penny."
This, however, is but as the announcement of the article on sale, and is followed by a recapitulation of the many virtues of that peculiar recipe; but, as regards the major part of these street traders, the recapitulation is little more than a change of words, if that. There are, however, one and sometimes two patterers, of acknowledged powers, who every now and then sell corn-salve - for the restlessness of this class of people drives them to incessant changes in their pursuits - and their oratory is of a higher order. One of the men in question speaks to the following purport:
"Here you are! here you are! all that has to complain of corns. As fast as the shoemaker lames you, I'll cure you. If it wasn't for me he dursn't sing at his work; bless you, but he knows I'll make his pinching easy to you. Hard corn, soft corn, any corn - sold again! Thank you, sir, you'll not have to take a 'bus home when you've used my corn-salve, and you can wear your boots out then; you can't when you've corns. Now, in this little box you see a large corn which was drawn by this very salve from the honourable foot of the late lamented Sir Robert Peel. It's been in my possession three years and four months, and though I'm a poor man - hard corn, soft corn, or any corn - though I'm a poor man, the more's the pity, I wouldn't sell that corn for the newest sovereign coined. I call it the free-trade corn, gen'l'men and leddis. No cutting and paring, and sharpening penknives, and venturing on razors to level your corns; this salve draws them out -only one penny -and without pain. But wonders can't be done in a moment. To draw out such a corn as I've shown you, the foot, the whole foot, must be soaked five minutes in warm soap and water. That makes the salve penetrate, and draw the corn, which then falls out, in three days, like a seed from a flower. Hard corn, soft corn, etc., etc."
The corn from "the honourable foot" of Sir Robert Peel, or from the foot of any one likely to interest the audience, has been scraped and trimmed from a cow's heel, and may safely be submitted to the inspection and handling of the incredulous. "There it is," the corn-seller will reiterate -"it speaks for itself." One practice - less common than it was, however, - of the corn-salve street-seller, is to get a friend to post a letter - expressive of delighted astonishment at the excellence and rapidity of the corn-cure - at some post-office not very contiguous. If the salve-seller be anxious to remove the corns of the citizens, he displays this letter, with the genuine post-mark of Piccadilly, St. James's street, Pall-mall, or any such quarter, to show how the fashionable world avails itself of his wares, cheap as they are, and fastidious as are the fashionable! If the street-professional be offering his corn-cures in a fashionable locality, he produces a letter from Cheapside, or Cornhill -"there it is, it speaks for itself" -to show how the shrewd city-people, who were never taken in by street-sellers in their lives, and couldn't be, appreciated that particular corn-salve!

Occasionally, as the salve-seller is pattering, a man comes impetuously forward, and says loudly,

"Here, doctor, let me have a shilling's-worth. I bought a penn'orth, and it cured one corn by bringing it right out - here the d -- d thing is, it troubled me seven year - and I've got other corns, and I'm determined I'll root out the whole family of them. Come, now, look sharp, and put up a shilling's-worth."
The shilling's-worth is gravely handed to the applicant as if it were not only a bon fide, but an ordinary occurrence in the way of business.

One corn-salve seller - who was not in town at the time of my inquiry into this curious matter - had, I was assured, "and others might have" full faith in the efficacy of the salve he vended. One of his fellow-traders said to me, "Ay, sir, and he has good reason for trusting to it for a cure; he cured me of my corns, that I'm sure of; so there can be no nonsense about it. He has a secret." On my asking this informant if he had tried his own corn-salve, he laughed, and said "No! I'm like the regular doctors that way, never tries my own things." The same man, who had no great faith in what he sold being of any use in the cure of "corn, wart, or bunion," assured me - and I have no doubt with truth - that he had sold his remedy to persons utter strangers to him, who had told him afterwards that it had cured their corns. "False relics," says a Spanish proverb, "have wrought true miracles," and to what cause these corn-cures were attributable, it is not my business to inquire.

I had no difficulty in acquiring a knowledge of the ingredients of a street corn-salve. " Anybody," said one man, "that understands how to set about it, can get the recipe for 2d." Resin, 1 lb., (costing 2d.); tallow, 1/4 lb. (11/2d.); emerald green (1d.); all boiled together. The emerald green, I was told, was to "give it a colour." The colour is varied, but I have cited the most usual mode of preparation. Attempts have been made to give an aromatic odour to the salve, but all the perfumes within the knowledge, or rather the means, of the street-sellers, were overpowered by the resin and the tallow, "and it has," remarked one dealer, "a physicky sort of smell as it is, which answers." The quantity I have cited would supply a sufficiency of the composition for the taking of "a sovereign in penn'orths."

In a week or so the stuff becomes discoloured, often from dust, and has to be re-boiled. Some of the traders illustrate the mode of applying the salve by carrying a lighted candle, and a few pieces of leather, and showing how to soften the composition and spread it on the leather.

"After all, sir," said the man, who had faith in the virtues of his fellow street-trader's salve, "the regular thing, such as I sell, may do good; I cannot say; but it is very likely that the resin will draw the corn, just as people apply cobbler's wax, which has resin in it. The chemists will sell you something of the same sort as I do."
The principal purchasers are working men, who buy in the streets, and occasionally in the public houses. The trade, however, becomes less and less remunerative. To take 15s. in a week is a good week, and to take 10s. is more usual; the higher receipt is no doubt attributable to a superior patter being used, as men will give 1d. to be amused by this street work, without caring about the nostrum. Calculating that eight of these traders take 10s. weekly - so allowing for the frequent resort of the patterers to anything more attractive - we find 208 pounds expended in the streets on this salve. The profits of the seller are about the same as his receipts, for 240 pennyworths can be made out of materials costing only 4 1/2d. The further outlay necessary to this street profession is a tray worth 1s. or 1s. 6d., but a large old backgammon board, which may be bought at the second-hand shops for 1s. and sometimes for 6d., is more frequently used by the street purveyors of corn-salve.






Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.


 

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