Thursday, December 18, 2008


The other day, I was with a friend and, as things sometimes happen, something was knocked over and there was a tumble of litter on the floor. My friend bent to pick up the small pieces, and I said, "Hang, on, don't do that with your hands, let me get the Mahoney."

The what?

My friend had never heard this term. Propmen backstage, who spend a lot of time sweeping the floor, call a long-handled dustpan and small broom a "Mahoney." But I had never bothered to wonder why it was called this. So I googled it.

The official description of a Mahoney is "a dustpan with a waist high handle, allowing the user to collect floor sweepings without bending over." In 1933 United States Patent #1893426 was awarded to John Mahoney for what was called a "lobby dust pan," fashioned so that the pan, when folded and hung on the wall, could serve as a holder for the broom.

A very useful tool in compact, high-traffic spaces like backstage in a theatre.

The Patent office shows several patents issued for devices to collect floor sweepings, including #587607 issued in 1897 to an African-American inventor named Lloyd P. Ray for what he called an "Improved Dustpan."

Mr. Ray and his wife Emma wrote a joint autobiography, titled "Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed." They were born the children of slaves, but by the turn of the last century, they were prominent Methodist church leaders and missionaries to the poor, destitute and downtrodden. Their book can be found online at Documenting the American South, hosted by the University of North Carolina.

The Rays describe their lives with vivid candour. They were married in 1887 in Fredonia, Kansas. He was a stonecutter and mason, and she was a servant for a lady who ran a millinery shop. Emma describes herself as a headstrong young woman who liked to wear the latest in fashion, go to theatres and have a good time. "As I grew older I became more vain," she confesses. Lloyd and Emma were young and lived a fast life. Emma admits:

I knew that he drank when we were married, but I didn 't think much of it at that time. I thought so long as he could take a drink or let it alone when he liked, it was all right. I thought it looked manly for him to smoke a cigar.
After a while, Lloyd's drinking increased, and he started to have job trouble. He began lying to Emma about money. After each bender, he apologized, and promised to clean up his act. But he always seemed to backslide.
It would not be very long before it would be the same old drink, the same old devil, the same old sin. I had a temper equal to a tigress. And a drinking man and a woman with a high temper make a home a hell. Many a night have I wept all night and wet my pillow with tears. He would always be sorry afterwards and say, "I will never do it again." But of course the habit was on him, and his associations were bad, and he had not the power within himself to resist the temptation.
In 1889 the couple thought a fresh start would revitalize their marriage and change their lives, and they moved to Seattle, Washington.

The Seattle fire has just destroyed the downtown business section, and stone masons were in demand. People lived in tent cities, and as Lloyd describes it,
saloons were at every door. The temptation was terrific and drinking everywhere. Beer by the water buckets was on the job from morning until night. Thus it got me farther down . . . I was in the habit of going to the saloon every morning when I was working, to get my "morning's morning" as I called it.
While Lloyd hung out at the notorious "Billy the Mug's Saloon" on the corner, Emma made friends in the neighborhood and began to attend the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. The church was located in the part of town where the African-American community was centered, called the Central District, around 23rd Avenue between Madison Street and Jackson Street. Some of her friends also had husbands with drinking problems, and the ladies counseled one another.

Emma tried to convince Lloyd to join her at church, but he refused. She prayed for his conversion. Eventually, it worked.
I thought I would go down and take a drink this morning, but my sins lay heavy upon me . . . I went to the bar and called for a whiskey, but something came up in my throat, and my heart was so heavy I could not drink. I shoved it to one side and said, "Give me a beer." They gave me the beer, and the same lump came in my throat, and I could not drink it. I shoved that to one side and said, "Give me a cigar," and paid my bill and walked out, never to go in again. As I started up the hill towards home I said, "What's the matter with me?"
Lloyd joined his wife at the next revival meeting, and their lives turned around after that. The couple became active in their church and community, and in the Women's Christian Temperance Union. They ministered to the sick, the poor, and those in jail. They even went to the saloons and taverns, where Lloyd's old drinking buddies were shocked to see him.
They worked with Mrs. O.S. Ryther, the founder of a children's home that still exists in Seattle today, trying to save young women from a life on the streets.

Their autobiography is a vivid account of how poor people lived in America at the turn of the century, populated by crazy characters and filled with fantastic stories. Their tales of ministering to street kids and drug addicts in the slums of Seattle are surprisingly similar to modern accounts. Emma Ray's voice dominates the book, as we see her develop into an impassioned preacher herself, while Lloyd is more modest, content with a supporting role.
Mr. and Mrs. Ray do not give an account of Lloyd's invention of the folding dustpan. But it was a hardscrabble life, and Lloyd was a man who worked with his hands, so it makes sense that he would try to devise a method of easing his work.

Emma tells of holding prayer meetings in the street near a vaudeville theatre, down on Railroad Avenue, which ran along the waterfront and the piers. Between shows, the theatre's orchestra would assemble in the street and play music to accompany their preaching.

I wonder, perhaps, as they made friends with the folks from the theatre, did Lloyd Ray share his handy invention with the house Propman?

"Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed," is great story of a fascinating African-American couple. Go to the link and read it - you'll love how Emma's voice brings turn of the century Seattle alive. This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Line drawings from the U.S. Patent Office. Seattle photos from the University of Washington digital collections. Photo of the Rays from the book.


Gary's third pottery blog said...

ah HA! makes me wonder why I use a dust pan where I have to get down on hands and knees....

Briget said...

Incredible. I intended to post an Elegantly Simple:

"You made me want to read Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed. So I will.

BUT...then I went to Amazon (to buy it used, ya know) and found - $75.00 used! $170.65 hardcover used!!

I mean, I love books, but...have you seen the Economy lately?

So I came back, cowed and penitent, and discovered that you posted a site where we can go download and read. Thank you! I have bookmarked the site and will go and read, giving thanks for cyberspace.

P.S. I have also Given Thanks for Mahoney, more than once, more than twice. My hips, my back and my knees all Give Thanks.

Glennis said...

thanks, Briget! It's a fun read. I used to live in Seattle, in the Central District, so it was even more fun for me!

Last Place Finisher said...

How could anyone think that a story about the dustpan's inventor hold interest? And yet, contrary to what one might think, it was completely engaging.

I can hardly wait to find a way to bring this up in a conversation!

Anonymous said...

Wow! This was so interesting. I will definitely be reading more about this couple. And, how wonderful that we can read it on-line.

Thank you for sharing.

Steph(anie) said...

I worked in a movie theater my senior year in high school and used one of those thousands of times. We never called it that though. I can't for the life of me remember what we did call it.

KG said...

I did lots of theater in high school (because I'm a dork like that) and we never called it that, either. I've never heard that term before. Interesting, though!

180360 said...

this was very interesting and something i've never heard before - which is always good!

Nihal said...

Look Glennis. That's why I enjoy reading 'blogs': extraordinary, move my brain cells, make me think, and produce questions 'why-how-what-when'.
Btw, not all of them of course:) And, I admit I'm very selective for reading. Thanks you're there, so this kind of information is not found everywhere. First time I heard such thing. Allow me now to read, thanks again for the great article of the month December:)