Rag Man

Today we welcome guest blogger Kenneth Haag. He shares a charming childhood memory of the rag man who rode through the alleys of Kenneth’s North Side Chicago neighborhood.

I was born too late for horse-drawn wagons, but I do remember a knife sharpener who wheeled a wooden cart down Central Park Avenue in the early 1960s. He stopped his cart on the street in front of our house, and my mother would bring out the kitchen knives.

It may seem hard to believe peddlers still walked residential streets in 1960s Chicago, but it’s true. Someone on the Forgotten Chicago forum posted a comment recalling the knife sharpeners and even linked to a photo of a cart, circa 1968!

Here’s Kenneth’s post:


“We called him the Rags-a-Line Man because that’s what his call, “Rags, old iron!” sounded like. He drove a horse-drawn wagon through the alleyways of our North Side neighborhood (Addison & Albany) in the 1940’s and probably earlier. He was one of the most magical characters of my youth.

“My hope is to write an article about him and his fellow tradesmen, these obscure and all-but-forgotten men (and their horses). I want to know who they were, where they came from, where and how they lived, so that there should be something to remember them to future generations. So far, I’m having very little success in finding anything on the internet. Any suggestions will be much appreciated.

“The Rags-a-Line Man of our neighborhood was called Koutek, which may have been his surname.  I turned seven in 1949, having lived at 3050 Addison for about three years. Another Chicago blogger lived on the South Side during that era and remembers hearing the call, “Rags-a-line!” in his neighborhood. So this becomes part of the mystery.

“How many of these ragmen and their horses were there? What determined their range and routes? How did the trade actually work? How did they manage to make a living at it – and also house and feed the horses?

Might there be living ancestors with stories to tell?

“On a different theme, my grandfather worked for the McBride Brothers & Knobbe Ice Cream Company sometime between 1914 and 1920. I have a photo of him and one of his co-workers with the horse-drawn wagon. The original photo is now in the Chicago History Museum library, but I have a large copy of it on my wall at home.”
Kenneth is right about the lack of any information about Chicago rag men on the Internet, so if you have a story to share with him, please contact me.
Credit: Photograph of McBride Brothers & Knobbe Ice Cream wagon courtesy of Kenneth Haag.

45 Responses to Rag Man

  1. Jerry Pritikin February 29, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    When I was a kid in the 1940s, there was a lot of traffic in our alley between the 4800 N. Troy Street and Albany, bounded by the 3100 W.Lawrence Ave. and Ainslie Street.
    I always thought the guy who came with a horse and buggy was yelling Rags and Lions…
    and my dad explained it was Rags and Irons. Once WWll ended, and there were no scrap iron and metals drives… people started to buy new bed springs(before box springs that was covered in mattress ticking) and the rags and iron man hauled the old springs away in his cart, along with old ice boxes, since new refrigerators became available. There were several kinds of Milk Trucks with names like Wanzer, Kramel Bowman and Western United. They also sold eggs and cottage cheese. Once in a while, Harry from Western-United gave us a ride on the running board, and also gave us some dry ice. We liked the sound it made when you put a penny on it. Since we liked playing Line-Ball in the alley during the summer, we had to stop our games for the Milk Trucks and Rags guy. The Sharpener Wagon did not come by as often as the others… however, back then the knives and scissors needed to be sharpened more often before hollowed blades that were self sharpening became available.

  2. Frances Archer February 29, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Jerry, “rags and lions” is so cute–what a wonderful phrase. Thanks for all this information — I didn’t know that about knives needing sharpening more back then. You’re right that the sharpener guy didn’t come by very often, but always memorable. Funny that he came down our street, not the alley. I think Central Park between 6000 N. and 5600 N. was a little unusual in that there were only houses on one side of the street and it was a dead end at Bryn Mawr, so there wasn’t much traffic on it. Thanks for your contribution.

  3. Bonnie McGrath February 29, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    What exactly were the rag men selling?? plain old rags?? didn’t people make rags out of old clothes and towels and things??? did they buy them?? or?? thanks..

  4. Frances Archer February 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Bonnie, I don’t think they sold anything, but were collecting. someone else must have bought from them in bulk. this is why we need Kenneth to write his article on this fascinating topic.

  5. Jerry Pritikin February 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    My mother always made Rag Rugs that was crochet together, made up of old socks that had holes in them. Nothing went to waste… all it took was a little imagination and time.

  6. Len February 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    Some things don’t change that much. Today those same alleys are regularly patrolled by scores of well used pickup trucks collecting mostly metal. They haul the scrap to yards along the river near Webster and Armitage. They are extremely efficient in getting the stuff out real quickly as the authorities obviously look the other way. One of the last urban examples of basic hard work and entrepreneurship operating mostly free of the over regulation which so often stifles this type of effort.

  7. john erickson March 1, 2012 at 6:11 am #

    Along our alley in North Park it was a sing-song call of “Any old rags, old iron” that could be heard a block away. The horse-drawn milk trucks were interesting because the horse knew the route and would advance to the next house while the driver made his delivery if given a double “tongue click”.

  8. Cary Chubin March 1, 2012 at 7:39 am #

    There was a bicycle riding knife sharpener in Glencoe in 1980!

  9. Frances Archer March 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Cary, was it one of the older guys who had been doing it for years, or was it someone who was bringing back an old idea. It would be a convenience, except that so many homes are empty during the day now.

  10. Frances Archer March 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    John, I love hearing about horse-drawn wagons going down our alleys … but I can’t picture them. I’m a child of the automobile age.

  11. Frances Archer March 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    Len, until now I never thought of those guys who drive pickup trucks down our alleys early in the morning on trash day as descendants of the rag men, but of course they are. The only difference is they don’t ask any more, they just take.

  12. Bruce Shapiro April 2, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    The rags were sold to pulp producers for paper production – no rags, no paper

  13. Frances Archer April 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Bruce, thanks for that contribution. Cool way of recycling.

  14. Ryan Szekeres April 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    I miss the knife sharpener. Does anyone know when he disappeared? We didn’t see him much south of Bryn Mawr so it was a rare sight. When we did see him it was the coolest thing ever. I’ve thought of taking up the trade but as others have said nobody is home anymore.

  15. Dan Williams April 10, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    My brothers and I lived at 35th and Wallace across the street from McClellan school between 1945 and 1952. There was a man that lived in a small house right next to our apartment building. He had a horse and wagon and delivered ice in the summer for the ice boxes and coal in the winter. I can still remember the leather covering on his shoulder when he carried the ice and the leather bag for carrying coal. I have thought many times about him and the many trips he made up and down those stairs carrying his load. He must have been in very good condition to do that. We also had a junk man who we kids thought said rags a lions and a fruit peddler who would take me with him. When we were through with his route up our alley he would give me some fruit to take home. I do believe his horse really liked me as I would slip a piece of fruit to him every once and awhile. I wish I had some pictures of that man and his horse and wagon. Our corner must have been very good for business because we also had a knife sharpener a hot dog wagon and a photographer with his pony. Thanks for the memories, Dan

  16. Frances Archer April 10, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Thanks for stopping by Dan and sharing your memories of the horse-drawn wagon delivery days. Interesting to know that depending on the season, the same guy did different jobs. I really appreciate your note because you’ve painted such a lively picture of street activity. Not the most efficient way to get goods moved around, but what fun for a kid!

  17. Andy Romanoff April 14, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    In the late forties and maybe into the early fifties we had an icebox in our apartment at 5637 N Spaulding. I remember the iceman bringing blocks of ice up the back stairs every couple of days wearing his leather apron and carrying his tongs. Of course we also had a Wanzer milkman and the grocery boy… I remember the horse drawn carts as well and one more thing, the coal trucks. The coal trucks of those days were chain drive, something that has long since disappeared but I can still see them and remember the sound they made. The coal truck would stop in the alley next to the coal window in the building basement. They would attach a long chute and tip the truck bed to start the coal flowing into the basement. Inside the basement Johnny, our janitor would shovel the coal into a storage bin one shovel full at a time. As the coal rose in the bin he would add a board to keep the coal from falling out. By the end the boards were about five feet high and every shovel full had to be lifted that high to be loaded. That was work!

  18. Frances Archer April 15, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    Andy, thanks for sharing these memories. I was truly surprised that there were still horse drawn carts. I suppose there were fewer cars at the time though. I picture today’s traffic, with so many cars and wonder how the horses survived the traffic. I am also curious if any recalls any stables in the area or nearby, maybe Budlong Woods. Coal was still delivered to Peterson School when I was there in the sixties and I remember the coal pieces scattered across the playground (Kimball Avenue side, that small separate power plant building).

  19. Andy Romanoff April 15, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    There were plenty of cars and very few horses even in the early fifties. I think the reason we who remember them write about it is that we were on the cusp, didn’t know it then but clearly see it now. Seems that some memories take a long time to develop…

  20. Frances Archer April 15, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Andy, it’s a fascinating moment in time, one that makes me think about today. What are we on the cusp of that we don’t realize? That horses and cars co-existed in the early ’50s in the neighborhoods of Chicago is something I don’t think many people today realize.

  21. Delores Bostrom January 12, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    I remember the ragman in the alleyway in the late 1940’s when I was a kid and lived on Racine Avenue near Belmont. He had a very rickety wooden-sided truck. His call was different than the one everyone else remembers. It was something like: “Kaey- yea, kaey-yea, kaey-yea, kaey-yea.” I never could figure out what it meant.

    All the other vendors came down the streets, not the alleys: the popcorn man who pushed a beautiful red cart – with the popcorn maker in a glassed-in box; the fruit and vegetable man with the horse-drawn wagon; the ice-man in a truck (we would sometimes take ice chips from the back of the truck when he was delivering a block of ice!); the Good Humor man on a tricycle-like vehicle – what a treat in the summer back then when no one had air-conditioning or freezer compartments big enough for more than ice cubes! There was also the milkman – but I was never up early enough to see him. I vaguely remember the knife-sharpening man. Most of the people in our neighborhood did not own cars, we were one of the few that did. Most folks walked or took the trolley to work.

  22. Frances Archer January 12, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanks, Delores, for this lovely picture of the many vendors your recall. It’s interesting for me to imagine the transition period when different types of transportation were all in use at one time: horse-drawn carts and hand carts were all sharing the streets and alleys. As you point out, most people didn’t own their own cars in those years. In hindsight, that seems like such a turning point, going from a city entirely dependent on public transportation to this era where we’re facing the problems of too many cars.

  23. Pat Edwards January 30, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Wow, I did a search for a picture of the “Rags a lion” horse drawn wagon, and found all these lovey memories. As a kid, I thought that’s what he was saying and imagined there must be a lion hidden among all that junk. Reading the other comments, seems I was not alone in what I thought the driver was shouting. In the l940s, I lived around North Ave. and Beach Street where we also had the knife sharpener, Good Humor man peddeling a bike-like vehicle, fruit & veggie peddler, an ice man and a waffle vendor making the best waffles I’ve ever had. We had a “corner store” Joe Poders, where my Gram and Mom used to send me for groceries. Still hoping to find a picture of that wagon.

  24. Frances Archer January 30, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    Pat, thanks for stopping by and sharing your memory. I didn’t know there was such a person as a waffle vendor. Sorry to have missed that.

  25. Susan (Mallen) Shamon April 20, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Thanks to all who have shared these priceless memories. I lived at 5408 North Sawyer in Chicago , apparently, very near to Andy Romanoff’ s apt at 5637 N Spaulding. I went to Peterson Elementary school and walked those streets and played with my pink spaulding rubber bouncing ball, played hopscotch and jacks, bought ice cream from the Good Humor man when his truck jingled by. II lived in Chicago until1956 so I remember the cliipety-clop of the old tired horse as it pulled the open wagon of the peddler that came through our neighborhood almost every day.. Not sure what the man was peddling, but he never looked up or saw me watching him from the second story open porch overlooking the alley.

  26. Frances Archer April 22, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Hi, Susan. Thanks for stopping by. I love reading your recollections. I’m totally obsessed with trying to picture horse-drawn wagons on the streets where I grew up. It just never occurred to me before I heard from other readers who shared their memories of the Hollywood Park area. Please feel free to write if you think of some more memories.

  27. Raymond J. Carroll August 13, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    I grew up on the south-side of Chicago; 81st and Kilbourn to be exact. I too remember the Rag Man/knife sharpener. What made me think of it this morning? What a treat to have all you fellow Chicagoans talking about it. I was born in 1955, living in Denver now.

  28. Frances Archer August 28, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your recollections of the rag man. We’re just a year apart, so our memories align pretty closely. I too remember the knife sharpener, but it’s only from the early 60s.

  29. Raymond J. Carroll August 28, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    Hey, where did you grow up? My mother grew up at 66th and Honore and my Dad was from 35th and Damen – The McKinley Park side. Anyway, Rags/old Iron. What a trip. I punched up George Burns-I wish I was 18 again on YouTube; Check that out, he sings it.

  30. Susan Rodriguez January 20, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    I lived on Sawyer until 3 years of age and I still remember the white horse with black blinders pulling a fruit wagon down our alley.

  31. Frances Archer January 22, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

    Hi, Susan, thanks for stopping by. I enjoy hearing recollections about orses in the neighborhood, and wish I had been around then to see one.

  32. Ronald Graham January 24, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    I grew up living at Albany and Waveland. Attended Grover Cleveland. An 84 year old I participate in a memoir writing group. Came across this site when I googled “rags a lion” as I am writing a piece about shopping at neighborhood stores in Chicago in the late 1930 and early 1940s. Would be glad to hear from any who have memories of those corner stores. Ronald Graham

  33. Frances Archer January 28, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by, Ronald. One of the things I’ve read is that the reason there were so many business districts for each neighborhood is that people walked to the stores, because not everyone had cars in those days. And they had to go to the neighborhood stores more frequently because people didn’t have refrigertors.

  34. Howard Glantz January 31, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    I wrote about this before but couldn’t find what I was replying about in this blog. My grandfather was a rag peddler, they called out “rags old iron”. He had a horse he named Hitler and said “I hated that horse”. His step sons and son-in-law all went into the scrap metal business and did well on a much larger scale. In the early 40’s there were Ice men, milk men, fruit peddlers, scrap dealers and even furniture delivery wagons. My mother’s twin sister’s father in law was also a rag & scrap metal peddler. My cousin Jerry did spend some time with him and his horse.

    The neighborhood stores were within walking distance and each had a speciality. There was a social aspect in that they knew all the gosip, all their customers and their kids and many offered credit on a short term basis. I could go to the barber shop, drug store, grocery, bakery and butcher without money, only her list. The next day she would pay everyone. We were always on our best behavior because everyone knew our mom and our names. I remenber how shocked I was when I learned you could but a pint of ice cream at “Docs” drug store on Kedzie and Argyle, for less than a Good Humor and you got a wood spoon.

  35. Frances Archer February 3, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    Howard, thanks for posting this. I think you and I discussed your writing a piece for the website about your grandfather, but I’m not sure I ever followed through. Thanks for posting the story here. I think there is a chapter to be written on the early days of the rags and scrap metal peddlers and the large scrap metal companies that evolved from some of those early business men.

  36. Sandra Karmann February 14, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    I lived up over a place called “Pioneer Auto Service” at 1655 N. Crawford ave. from 1940 to 1949. I remember a horse drawn carriage with a man making waffles, and selling them for 2 cents each…. he had beautiful bells that he rang to let you know he was there by the gas station. Strange how you always remember the little things in your life that has made it so beautiful.

  37. Frances Archer February 18, 2014 at 3:58 am #

    Sandra, thanks so much for sharing your recollection. I am fascinated by these remembered images of horses on the streets I knew as a child.

  38. Stella Pankey February 28, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    I grew up in Bucktown around Division and Milwaukee. Sometimes we had a horse drawn wagon go down our alley (on Cleaver St) as late as the 60’s. He would sell vegetables and fruit. My mom always gave me a dollar or two and that would buy us a lot of produce! I would feel sorry for the old horse and at times would ask the peddler if I could give the horse a treat – most of the time he let me give him a carrot or apple. I developed a love of horses from childhood on, it may have been from this experience.

    Late in the 60’s we had a car – a station wagon go down our alley on Saturdays . The man would sell eggs fresh from the farm. He would yell “Eggman here! Eggman! 20 cents a dozen! (or something like that)”
    Again, we got fresh eggs for less than the price in the supermarket, basically right to our door!

    Gosh, those were the days, I miss them.

  39. Frances Archer March 13, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    Stella, thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to post it — I was away. I’ve heard about how eggs were sold at that time because there was a story that the people my parents bought their first house from sold eggs out of the garage.

  40. Lois Prilla July 20, 2014 at 10:53 am #


    Read about Kirk Douglas. He wrote a book about his father being a ragman.


    Hope this helps you out.


  41. Frances Archer July 22, 2014 at 8:56 am #

    Thanks for sending this. I bet that’s an enjoyable book. I do think the subject deserves a book, so many interesting stories.

  42. Jim Reynolds February 24, 2015 at 7:05 am #

    I recall the rags-iron “junk man” with his horse drawn wagon going down the alley behind 2154 W Belle Plaine several times a year back in the 1954-59 era. As a kid I would collect papers and rags to sell to him … never got more than a few pennies as I recall. And of course, we had the knife/scissors man with his bike-push cart plying the neighborhood. My favorite memory is a man with a little cart in front of a bar on the west side of Lincoln, just immediately south of Belle Plaine who sold red hots … Chicago dogs back in the 50’s. He only had dogs and tamales. As I recall a totally loaded dog (onions, green sweet relish, tomatoes, mustard, hot peppers and celery salt) went for a quarter … a lot of money for a kid back then. I can still smell the stale beer and smoke wafting out of the bar in the summer with it’s swinging saloon type doors… tempered by the great hotdog. A true Chicago treasure.

  43. Tom Donzelli March 16, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    I lived on the west side. 3529 w. Walnut. Garfield park. I was born 1946. I also had the rags a line man come down the alley. Same with the coal man.Im still trying to ex plain all this t my grown kids and grand kids. Still a good memory of our past and beyond.

  44. Jane July 31, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

    This has been just great going down memory lane. I was a child growing up in the 1930’s on Chicago’s north side. I do know of the coal man, I’ce man, and remember how excited was I at Christmas time especially because the dairy companies, such as BORDEN WIELAND put sleigh bells on their horses Christmas eve. I remember hearing them and thinking Santa had arrived. The knife sharpener also repaired umbrellas. Does anyone remember the tar truck when replacing shingles they’d drop little drops of tar that hardened quickly and we missed would chew the tar which resulted in a good spanking.

  45. Frances Archer August 1, 2016 at 9:57 am #

    Jane, thanks for stopping by. What a great memory of the sleigh bells at Christmas.

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