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Funny Mobile Customs

Writer Frances Beverly documents some of historic Mobile’s most bizarre practices.

Born in 1865, Frances V. Beverly toiled away at her home on Government Street throughout the 1930s and ’40s, writing what she hoped would become the almanac of Mobile. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beverly died in Mobile in 1954, leaving behind piles of manuscripts hidden from the very audience whose lore and customs she so tirelessly documented for posterity — that is, until now. In this series, MB presents the Frances Beverly Papers.

Among the many queer and unpleasant customs which were prevalent in Mobile for many, many years, one [in particular] was the cause of much unhappiness and embarrassment to children — the horrible habit which mothers had of using what they called “medication” for protecting the child.

At the first rumor of a contagious disease being in the city, all of the mothers stampeded to the drugstores, and you will never guess what they were in a hurry to buy. Every child from newborn infants to 12-year-olds was decorated with little red flannel bags filled to bursting with asafoetida, camphor and an assortment of spices. These bags were worn on a string around the neck, and when the heat of the body began to take effect on the contents of the bag, the unfortunate wearer could find no welcome anywhere. The family openly sniffed and moved away or said, “Get out of here,” and strangers politely, if such a gesture could ever be polite, would take out a handkerchief and cover their noses, until they could put distance between them.

Children lost respect for themselves, and some took on inferiority complexes, and they hated everybody because nobody would sit near them in church or in a streetcar, and they felt that the whole world was against them.

No one ever would give them any reasonable reasons for wearing such horrible-smelling bags, except that while they wore them they could never have whooping cough, measles, diphtheria or any other disease. Certainly, no self-respecting disease would go near anybody who smelled as they did. No germ would want to live where asafoetida had its abode.

In the early days it was a custom, almost universal, when on a trip a man, accompanied by his wife, to register on steamboats and in hotels as “John Smith and Lady,” with “Lady” capitalized.

It was done by all men, a kind of blanket registration, which covered any kind of a lady, from the octogenarian grandmother, to the painted young things of the ballet and chorus. “John Smith and wife” or “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith” was too specific. It was perfectly alright, on occasion, but the majority of men preferred the “Lady” and hence the general registration.

Of course, the error in classification could not always be detected, and it was “a sop” to conventions; she was at least a lady on hotel registers, if not otherwise recognized. It is only very rarely seen now-a-days, and then only on country hotel registers.

The custom of giving “lagniappe” is strictly a custom of Mobile and New Orleans, which meant that each purchaser of food stuffs, particularly, received a cookie in a baker shop, or an apple in a grocery, or a stick of candy in a drugstore.

This was a great joy to children, and there was no trouble in those days to get a child to go on an errand. Grownups, when they paid a bill of any considerable amount, were always given a box of candy or a bag of fruit, with the most profound bow and appreciative thanks. At Christmas, each regular customer was sent a turkey or a bottle of wine.

Times have changed; when one pays a bill now, the money is received with a grunt or a snort and an air of disgust at having to wait until the first of the month to get it. Courtesy is not a strong point with merchants anymore. Instead of getting lagniappe, we get short weight: If you make a purchase, when you get home there will be 10 oranges instead of a dozen, and the tested scales on your pantry shelf will show that there is a shortage of one-eighth to one-quarter of a pound of everything in your market basket.

Honest inspectors have found that many weights are tampered … 100 years ago, not one man in a million would have thought of plugging weights with lead, but it is quite “au fait” in this generation.

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