Aladdin of the Midwest

Carleton, Michigan, a community within Ash Township. Ash Township had a population of a little under 2,000 people in 1912 and Carleton had just incorporated as a village.  You could do your basic shopping downtown in Carleton and stop at the hotel for a drink. Photographic evidence suggests that downtown may have had moonlight tower, which would’ve lit the streets up at night with a blinding light.

Near Carleton, Michigan, 1912.

Our reliable Mantle Lamp Company salesman, Fred Nowak, is selling Aladdin Lamps door to door on Judd Road. He hasn’t had much luck. Right now, he’s walking up to a white clapboard house with green trim. Waves of maize dance in the summer breeze.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Just a moment!”

Fred catches a glimpse of his necktie in the window. Impeccable this morning, it now hangs desperately from his rumpled collar. He adjusts it to little effect. It’s at least a half mile to the next house, and the last house was over a mile back. In the suffocating haze of an August sun, such distances are interminable.

Mrs. Spreckels opens the door, patting her apron with the other hand. Her hair, done up in a bun, is frizzled and unkempt. She wears a simple dress with vertical stripes that reaches all the way down to her ankles.

“Yes, may I help you, um…?”

“The name’s Fred, Fred Schweitzer. And why yes, m’am, you could help me, you could help me very much, by answering for me this one simple question.

“Would you happen to own an Aladdin kerosene lamp?”

“We own a few kerosenes, of course, but I believe ours are Coleman. Really, I…”

“Oh, those ol’ Colemans are okay, but they don’t hold a candle – if you will, m’am – to an Aladdin. Now!”

Fred picks up the lamp at his feet and taps the glass chimney a few times with his index finger.

“This here Aladdin turns night into day! With a Coleman, you’re lucky to see past your nose. But the Aladdin – the Aladdin has a modern, white light, like those electric lights you see in the city. Half past midnight and you’d swear it was high noon. High noon, m’am!”

Fred pauses to wipe the sweat off his brow with his handkerchief. He’s got a grin as wide as the Grand Canyon.

“Now if that didn’t sell you, what if I told you that the Aladdin uses half the kerosene your Coleman takes? Half! It’s safe enough the kids can use it. We’ve never had one explode yet! And would you take a look at this solid brass base? This is real, fine craftsmanship.”

“Really, I don’t know about this. Why we just spent…”

“Look here, this lamp’ll only set you back $3.50. Honest, that’s the lowest we can sell ’em and make good.

“Tell ya what. I’ll let you try it free for the night. I’ll even throw in the kerosene to make it square. Whad’dya say? I’ll stop back in the morning.”

“Well… alright. The girls’s marks are poor, you know? They tell me it’s ’cause they can’t study once the sun sets. We’ll see about that tonight, won’t we, Mr… ?”

“Mr. Schweitzer. Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Spreckels.”

Life in and around Carleton in the first few decades of the 1900s was a weird mix of old and new. Threshing was still a laborious task, but at least now you had a machine you shared with the neighbors to help matters along. And though you might not have had electricity yet, innovations like the Aladdin and the crystal radio – a simple radio that ran on the power of radio waves – revolutionized everyday life.

On Sundays, probably your only day off, you could take the interurban to Monroe or Detroit for a big city adventure. It was about your most reliable form transportation for long trips, even if you owned a Model T. The roads were terrible. Most times of the year, you pushed your car almost as much as you drove it. But that’s how it was. One day you hand delivered milk to the creamery, overalls covered in mud, and the next you were installing the first planks on Middlebelt Road.

Back then, farm to table wasn’t a cute catchphrase. It was how you survived. You cut up chickens, cleaned the giblets, stuffed, dressed, and trussed. Roots were stored in a cellar, fruits in a can. Eating out was expensive, reserved for only the rarest of occasions, a wedding or funeral.

Life was tough, but you made a go of it.

Aren’t you glad you live nowadays?

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One thought on “Aladdin of the Midwest

  1. Yes. Yes, I am. I’m surprised more people didn’t die out of sheer boredom. They must have been too busy working to be bored.

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