The Vagabond – Feather renovators and medicine shows


By Danny Crownover

Feather beds originated in northern Europe and were luxury items for the wealthy. Filled with goose down, the beds provided an incredibly soft sleeping experience.

Back in the 1880s and 1890s, several Gadsden businessmen were engaged in the feather renovating business. Several solicitors soon covered the entire county for featherbeds to be steamed and renovated. They would set up a small and portable steam plant in a vacant store, which was usually in Tunnel Block on the north side of Broad Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.

By the time the plant was set up, the featherbeds began to roll, with the feathers removed and the dirt steamed free.

One solicitor pointed out a pile of feathers that had been removed and noted that the pile weighed several pounds. The store’s manager always had something of the kind to show prospective customers, and a pile of dirt was apt to turn prospective customers into enthusiastic customers.

In those days, almost every family had at least one featherbed. Most farmers kept geese for their feathers to be used in featherbeds. When daughters married, they usually received a featherbed as a bridal gift.

These were the days of country fiddlers who had an expert to beat on rhythm strings with two straws while he used the bow. Such a pair could be found frequently in saloons, at country dances and all sorts of public gatherings.

Musicians would set up an Italian harp on a street corner and play music for the nickels and dimes. A Russian with the dancing bear came along at almost regular intervals, and a man with the street organ and trained monkey was a regular visitor. The medicine show was one of the big sources of amusement in those days.

Strolling minstrels and string bands serenaded the town and often played at local dances. Trained ponies, the groundhog boy, the six-legged calf, the petrified man and other freaks were attractions, as well.

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