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GENERATIONS: Tony Nicholson: What’s a Butcher Boy again?

I interviewed my mother in 1985 on her 80th birthday, and recorded the interview with a cassette recorder. The interview lasted approximately three hours over two days. Several years later, I made a copy of the two cassette tapes.

I heard my mother talking, but I did not listen. I even had the tapes transferred to compact discs. I decided recently to listen to the discs to prepare an edited transcript. For the first time I actually listened to Mom’s stories about her family and her life up until the time that I was a little boy.

When my mother was a child in the early 1900s, her mother took her and her brother by train from Clarksburg, Wv., to Hartford City, Ind., at the beginning of every summer.

Mom spent a few minutes of the interview talking about the train trips to Indiana. She loved the rides with her mother and brother, and looked forward to the summers when she would spend time with aunts, uncles and cousins on the farms around Hartford City. As I listened to her recall the train travel of nearly 80 years ago, she spoke about “butcher boys.” I had never heard the term. Mom described how young boys would walk the aisles of the passenger cars selling candy, and other treats, and food as well as coffee to the passengers.

I found her recollection invited research. I found a citation on Google that stated, “In the early 1880’s the U.S. colloquialism Butcher and Butcher Boy referred to a vendor of candy, fruit, sandwiches, newspapers, etc. on street corners and trains, at sporting events, etc. It’s not clear why the word ‘butcher’ was used other than that retail sales were involved. However, the first example of its use was in reference to a ‘candy-Butcher,’ and candy making often did involve the use of a board and a blade as with the meat butcher.”

In an article published by the University of Iowa entitled “Iowa Railroad Guide,” about travel on the Great Burlington Route, a section gave some details about butcher boys. The section reported as follows:

“Butcher boys board the trains at division points. They go through the cars selling newspapers, books, candy, canned beans, fruit, homemade rolls, coffee, cigars and cigarettes. Their goods are reasonably priced. They leave the train at the next major stop, refill their baskets, and board a returning train.

Most of the butcher, or train, boys are neat appearing and very friendly.  However, the traveler should give them the exact sum, or count his or her change at once. Some passengers have been short-changed by the train boys. Many have missed valuables after the butcher boys have left the train.”

Mom’s love of train travel inspired me to love trains, especially steam engine trains, and train travel even without knowing anyone similar to a butcher boy.

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