#422: Rex, a Lion

January 7th, 2015

An email from my mother, early Tuesday morning:

“When she was a little girl in Chicago, Grandma wondered why there were men pulling carts through the streets yelling, ‘Rex, a lion.’

“She later learned they were junk men calling for people’s rags and old iron. She told me some of those junk men became millionaires, from selling that old iron for the needs of WWII.”

My grandmother was born in 1921 and died a few years ago. She was 90. Great-Uncle Leonard out in Morton Grove remembers the rag pickers too, calling up and down the streets by their home at Lawrence and Sawyer.

“Rags! Old iron!”

It’s not an unknown phenomenon. A Chicago musician and journalist named Oscar Brown, Jr., wrote a song about the rag and old iron men in 1958. Nina Simone covered it.

Essanay, a short-lived silent film company based out of Uptown, did a short in 1910 called “Rags, Old Iron!” It’s about two kids selling rags to raise enough money to get into a nickelodeon.

Someone named a racehorse Rags Old Iron. Another person used it for a horror novel title. A third had it as the name of her sorta gothy Etsy shop.

A few more search results here and there. It’s the name of a quilt shop in New Mexico too. That sort of stuff.

Men wandering streets pulling carts, making their living off scraps, now only remembered in scraps.

Rex, a lion.

What won’t we remember?

Will history swallow those annoying clipboard kids asking if you have a moment to spare for the environment? Will some future grandchild look on with confusion when we try to describe those people who stand on medians holding signs directing people to tax prep places?

“No, no, Xenon Marslord Dailing, they would be dressed as the Statue of Liberty and hold up big arrows pointing people to Liberty Tax Service locations. Before the space war.”

I’m not talking about fads, nor am I talking about dying industries. We’ll laugh at cronuts and we’ll bemoan manufacturing. But we forget the rag men.

What silly, small, meaningless scene-setting details will be blurred in future recounting, petrified like a fly in amber in a few old references no one gets?

“What’s your quilt shop named for?”

“What’s that song about?”

“Why do you have a racehorse named ‘Dial-Up Modem’?”

The floppy disk in the corner of Word is just the “Save” icon. Many people never used a telephone that looks like the picture they press to call on an iPhone.

We’ll have to explain the video game “Paperboy.”

In the 1920s in Chicago, there was a little girl in Albany Park. Her name was Dorothy. Her memories weren’t gangsters and speakeasies, like the movies say they should be. Instead, they were just the little, human moments of life, the details blurred by time.

Like rag men pulling cart on the street, shouting “Rex, a lion!”

Comment on this story

Read more forgotten history

Listen to Oscar Brown’s original “Rags and Old Iron”

Listen to Nina Simone’s version

A description of the silent film

What's this?

You are currently reading #422: Rex, a Lion by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.