Our “Recreation and Leisure History” exhibit opened on May 9th, and with it, various treasures from our archives and collections which highlight the ways people spent their leisure time during Morton Grove’s earliest days have been placed on display. Vintage ice-skates, video clips from black & white silent films, and a 19th Century Penny Farthing bicycle highlight how much the world has changed–and alternately, how much it hasn’t!
Beyond artifacts, one immensely valuable and often overlooked aspect of our collections played an instrumental role in the development of this exhibit–oral histories. During the late 1970’s and throughout much of the 1980’s, the Morton Grove Historical Society interviewed many long-term residents of the village who, many in their 70’s and 80’s at that point, were able to provide us with a lasting portrait of life in Morton Grove at the turn of the 20th Century–including information about what residents did for fun. In our mission to preserve the stories of Morton Grovers of the past, few elements perform this function and capture the minutiae of daily life with more clarity than an oral history. Occasionally, you may even uncover a tidbit of information that would otherwise have been lost to the winds of time. Take, for example, an undated oral history with Dorothy Gerber, who grew up on Callie Avenue in early 20th Century Morton Grove. Dorothy’s interview reads similarly to many of the others, nostalgic talk of a simpler time and way of life, but it’s her mention of a medicine man that is worth noting.
Today a vanished bastion of American culture, medicine men–and the greater medicine show with which they traveled–were enormously popular during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Capitalizing on a growing interest in matters of public health, the traveling bandwagon would come to town along with a circus or carnival of sorts, featuring entertainment such as a freak show, a magician, and Vaudeville acts. The medicine man himself was always at the center of the show, usually peddling a “patented” tonic or elixir that could miraculously cure myriad ailments, from liver disease to insomnia.
Dorothy Gerber’s quote reads as follows: “(He) used to give quite a show to drum up business for his ointments, salves, and his ‘snake oil’ guaranteed to cure all aches and pains…including toothache for three bottles for a dollar. The medicine man and traveling carnivals would set up shop in vacant lots and play the village for several days or a week.”
A passing mention; no new information we didn’t already know about medicine shows. However, some aspects of Morton Grove’s past are heavily represented in our collections, while others remain somewhat of a mystery– and nowhere else in our collections is there any mention of a medicine show visiting Morton Grove. In preserving this conversation with Dorothy, we’ve been given a window to the past that otherwise would have been lost. As we researched the many ways Morton Grove’s residents might have spent their free time and had fun long ago, this singular quote played an important role in noting a form of early entertainment many of them likely indulged in.
Learn more about the history of medicine shows here.
The Board, Volunteers and Staff of the Morton Grove Historical Society and Museum write about topics that are relevant to our current programs, events, collections, collective history, or sometimes topics they just find interesting and they hope you do too. Thanks for stopping by!