Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by catherine yronwode
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In 1997 i interviewed a man named LeRue Marx about his career at the Lucky Heart Company, a cosmetics manufacturer in Memphis, Tennesee. Marx was employed there from 1935 through 1980, when he retired. During the first half o his career with the company, Lucky Heart also sold curios and spiritual supplies through its national system of agents, supplied the African-American community with cosmetics and hoodoo spiritual supplies.
After we discussed his work with Lucky Heart, i asked LeRue about his own childhood. He told me that he was born in 1913 and had lived his entire life in Memphis. His parents, Lee and Julia Marx, were Jewish, and his father was a cousin of the famous Marx Brothers comedians of vaudeville and film fame. According to LeRue, his father, Lee Marx, was a pharmacist whose dry goods and drug store served primarily African-American customers. In addition to medicines and cosmetics, the elder Mr. Marx also stocked a small line of curios, mostly the raw makings for root work formulas such as Goofer Dust and the like. One of the products that crossed the thin line between conventional cosmetics, so-called "lucky" cosmetics and a lucky hoodoo curio was Hoyt's Cologne. It was a cheap perfume that sold for ten cents per bottle, as shown in this trade card from the 1910s. (Two other old-fashioned commercial colognes with magical reputations are Florida Water and Kananga Water.)
LeRue told me that his first introduction to hoodoo came when he was still a child. He used to help out in the drug store after school, and as he recalled, people who got their weekly pay checks on Friday and planned to spend the evening gambling would often come into the pharmacy near closing time to buy a bottle of Hoyt's Cologne. "Sales of Hoyt's Cologne were higher on Friday than any other day of the week," he said.
"I remember one incident very well," he said. "I was about ten years old." This would have been in 1922. "I was working in the pharmacy and a very large, well-built, middle-aged coloured woman came in and she wanted a ten cent bottle of Hoyt's Cologne. So i got it for her and she put down her ten cents on the counter and then she just opened the bottle up, right there in the aisle, and she poured the entire contents on her head and all over her body and she was laughing and shaking herself and she said, 'I'm gonna get lucky tonight!' And she just left the empty bottle sitting there on the counter and went out. I'll never forget that. I was astonished. I asked my father about it and he told me that Hoyt's Cologne was thought to be lucky for gamblers."
Faith in Hoyt's Cologne extends well beyond Memphis. All across the South, East, and West, one learns that this humble brand of perfume is widely believed to be efficacious in "feeding" mojo hands, to bring luck in love spells and, above all, to be an effective lucky hand rub and body wash for card players, crap shooters, and those who bet on policy. (For more about playing policy, see the page on Aunt Sally's Policy Players Dream Book.) The origins of this belief are unknown to me, for i have never seen an advertisement for the product that even remotely alludes to its mystical powers.
In 1999, an internet correspondent named "Jim B." offered an interesting suggestion as to why Hoyt's Cologne came to be lucky for gamblers. As he tells the story, "I was looking in an old shop the other day for an original Hoyt's bottle (just an empty old bottle as a collector's item) -- and the old gentleman made an interesting comment. He said "I remember that stuff -- used to be popular a long time ago. I don't think they make it any more -- but they still make the playing cards."
Obviously the old man had confused Hoyt's Cologne with Hoyle's Playing Cards and the famous card came rule-book originated by Edmund Hoyle. Could other people have done so? The notion is a tempting one, because the typographic styles of the names can bear a startling resemblance to one another, as demonstrated by a comparison between the 1913 edition of the "Hoyle's Games" book and a contemporary bottle of Hoyt's Cologne, shown above.
LeRue Marx died in 2003, at the age of 90 and was buried next to his wife,
Rebecca Epstein Marx, in the
Orthodox Jewish cemetery
in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hoyt's Cologne is still manufactured.
As the illustration
indicates, it is a floral scent, mingling the
fragrance of roses and violets with a hint of clove and citrus. And although the price has risen
from the 10 cents a bottle of LeRue Marx's childhood, it is still used for
gambler's luck and as an altar offering
to spirits, and it is
stocked in most spiritual supply stores that serve the
African-American community. The same company also continues to make
a popular old-fashioned
hair care brilliantine called Hoyt's Bergamot.
A side-note on Hoyt's Cologne and the oral collection of folk-lore. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Harry Middleton Hyatt travelled through the South interviewing and recording root doctors about hoodoo. One of the most mysterious recurring references in his resulting 5-volume book, "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork" is to something called "Hearts Cologne" or "herts perfume." At numerous entries, Hyatt's informants seem to tell him that they use "Heart's Cologne" or "herts perfume" to gain luck in money matters, gambling, and love affairs.
Hyatt got most things right, but truth to tell, this is an egregious error. There is no "Hearts Cologne" or "herts perfume." There is only "Hoyt's Cologne." (For an example of Hyatt's mistranscription of Hoyt's Cologne as "Heart's Cologne," see the page on Devil's Shoestring roots, where the cologne is used to "feed" a gambler's lucky hand.)
I think i understand the problem Hyatt was up against and why he made the mistake he did. Without putting too fine a point on it, it must be noted that Hyatt was a white person from the North and his interviewees were black people from the South. Sometimes he really did not understand what they were saying. However, as a folklorist, he not only presented each story verbatim, he and his transcriptionists also went to great lengths to transcribe each speaker's dialect semi-phonetically, in order to preserve the regional quality of the speech.
Hyatt was working from good general principles, but in the case of Hoyt's Cologne he ran up against the one word that would not fit his paradigm. You see, there is a distinct regional accent found from New Orleans up the Mississippi River Valley to Memphis, where the "r" sound is dropped in a characteristic way -- a way that superficially resembles the old "Toity-toid and Toid" dialect of Brooklyn, New York. This regional accent is fading away now, but it was quite common among both Caucasians and Negroes from that area during the early half of the 20th century. Perhaps the clearest example of it can be heard in the 1920s and 1960s recordings of the well-known blues singer Mississippi John Hurt. In his voice, the name "Alberta" became "Alboita" and the word "work" became "woik." In fact, Mississippi John Hurt pronounced his own surname "Hoit."
I believe that when Hyatt's informants told him about Hoyt's Cologne, he mentally corrected their pronunciation by moving "backwards" from "Hoits" to "Hurts" -- and since that made no sense, he either wrote "herts" or selected the more meaningful near-homonym "Hearts," thus creating the spurious product he named "Hearts Cologne." In any case -- and whether my reasoning as to why he made the mistake is correct or not -- every reference to "Hearts Cologne" and "herts perfume" in Hyatt's 4,766 page manuscript should be amended to read "Hoyt's Cologne."
Further text and illustrations demonstrating the inter-relationship between cosmetics companies and the manufacturers of hoodoo and conjure spiritual supplies during the pre-World-War-Two era can be found on these "Hoodoo in Theory and Practice" pages by cat yronwode:
Illustrations of labels, packaging, catalogue pages, advertisements, and agents' flyers for Valmor, King Novelty, Lucky Brown, Lucky Heart. Clover Horn, and other cosmetics and spiritual supply companies of the pre-World-War-Two era, plus further text-based information on the interplay between occultism and hoodoo in the inter-war period, can be found on these "Hoodoo in Theory and Practice" pages by cat yronwode:
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