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Back then: Records by Royster
On Aging

Advertising came to the back country in a variety of ways. Small town and crossroads stores displayed signs for soft drinks, patent medicines and other products. These days, collectors scour the countryside in search of these signs as treasures. Back then some companies attached their advertisements to everyday items used by the plain folk.

Farmers prized small notebooks and ingenious pencils that were useful for keeping records of all sorts. They were given away through local dealers by several fertilizer makers and others who hoped to sell to farmers. Somehow I remember Royster fertilizer pencils and pads best, not those from Southern States, Swift or Armour, the fertilizer brands my father used most. Perhaps the reason is that the name was a bit like my first name or because it was unusual.

These pads and pencils were basic record keeping tools for a generation of farmers. One book might contain all of a farmer's purchases and sales for a year. It might hold entries on all of the cash advanced or credit guaranteed to a tenant farmer. It might be used as a tally book when weighing cotton picked by several people. Some farmers kept records of breedings and birthings of cows and hogs, maybe even survival rates of the young and comments about how good a mother the dam was. Anything that a farmer needed to record could be preserved in one or more of these booklets served by their companion pencils.

The little notebooks were center-stitched and rather narrow-ruled, tough on those who had trouble writing small. They were about 3x5 inches in size. (The one I have is 5 1/4 inches long.) The front cover featured the company name and the back might repeat it with a catchy slogan. The inside cover and maybe the first page or two provided tables of weights and measures and other useful information.

The pencils were ingenious. Round tubes a little larger than a cigarette and about three inches long were fitted with a fat eraser at one end. The base of a short, round pencil was fitted into a bullet-shaped metal holder. When the pencil was in use, the "bullet" was inserted into the end of the larger tube opposite the eraser. The fit was snug. The "business end" of the pencil was ready to write. When its work was finished, it was removed from the tube and inserted point first into the tube, leaving nothing but the round end of the "bullet" showing no broken points or pencil-point accidents.

They were little marvels of planning and design. The size was just right to fit the chest pocket of bib overalls. Carefully trimmed with a farmer's sharp pocket knife, the pencil could be kept sharp and made to last a long time. When used up, it could be replaced until the eraser was used up with precisely cut pieces of a single pencil or by a stub from a child's school supplies.

Farmers' wives liked these recording devices, too, if they could coax some from their husbands. They became tally books for jars of vegetables canned — or packs of some frozen — of jars of jellies, of eggs and butter sold, of chicks hatched and raised.

After my mother died, written in her neat hand, I found one filled with lists of beans canned, corn frozen and pears preserved. I wondered if this huge collection of things necessary to survive "just in case hard times came again" included the darkened things that I had been forced to discard. Well, she did not go hungry because of hard times.

She and others collected recipes, home remedies and addresses of family and friends who had moved away. Some were books of life — records of babies who were born and those who died, and records of the less piercing but still sorrowful deaths of family elders whose loss took away part of who they were. 

Men remembered such things, but women wrote them down in their hearts, in their Bibles and in little Royster books.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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