Some time ago now I decided to turn oral historian with my grandmother, pumping her for facts about medicine shows. I didn’t get the chance to begin until the week I spent in Sydney recently (just got back to Brisbane actually, after a week also in Melbourne), grabbing the chance for a late-afternoon session. We talked nineteen to the dozen, if I’ve remembered that expression rightly, and I hope for many sessions more.
My grandmother was born in 1933 in Hanging Rock, in rugged country just out of tiny Nundle, north-west New South Wales, Australia. Nundle was a town which had seen thronging crowds during the nineteenth-century gold rushes, but had well and truly dwindled by the time of the Depression in her youth.
Nundle valley from the Hanging Rock look-out
As a small kid, at the end of the 1930s and very early 1940s, my grandmother remembers husband-and-wife teams coming to Nundle and setting up on a platform or the back or a cart on vacant land near the Town Hall. The wife would draw clusters of kids by hanging toffee apples from strings and arranging contests to eat them, or inviting people to seize a sixpence with their mouths in a bucket of flour, hands bound behind their backs. Once a crowd had gathered, the husband would shout out a sing-song spiel about the wonders of the panacea they were peddling. It cured gout, he would say; it healed this, it salved that. ‘And people would buy it’, my grandmother said. ‘There wasn’t a doctor in Nundle then – there’d been quacks before that, but no doctor. Everyone had medicines they’d bought some way or another’.
My grandmother also remembers door-to-door peddlers coming all the way out to their place at Hanging Rock, perhaps hitching a ride with the mail run, and otherwise getting about on foot. (Such a huge amount of effort for what must surely have been a paltry return). The peddlars would string a box-shaped case around their necks which snapped open to reveal serried rows of bottles and ointments. On top of that, everyone in the district had a medicine box of their own, bought from the Red Cross and full of bandages and books with anatomical information from which she learned a risqué thing or two.
During my grandmother’s childhood, there was also a travelling dentist who took rooms in the hotel at Nundle (the Peel Inn, I think it was called) and pulled teeth for a couple of weeks at a time. He was a drunk, and scary because of it. But people like my grandmother’s stepmother went to him anyway. They would wait their turn in the hotel foyer, listening, perhaps, to the groans of other people inside his room. And afterwards, they would return home ruefully, balled handkerchief in fist, their gums full of blood and air.