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Alice Virginia

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Avon Company could not have picked a worse time to begin calling on New Boston, Illinois, than the spring of 1934. Like the rest of the country, the small Mississippi River community was caught in the grip of the Great Depression. It was barely able to support the Watkins man who came around selling liniment, let alone spare loose change for fine beauty products for women and young girls.

Fortunately, the Avon Company picked the right saleslady: eleven-year-old Alice Virginia. Alice's mother barely made ends meet as a cook and housekeeper for a local doctor. One day an Avon recruiter convinced her of the rewards of selling Avon; the mother, in turn, recruited her daughter, Alice, a precocious child who would have quickly had Tom Sawyer whitewashing his own fence had she been in that book.

Alice soon memorized the whole sales pitch. By the time she was let loose on New Boston, looking like she had just stepped out of a Montgomery Ward’s catalog, she was able to explain the particular virtues of each lotion, powder, and oil. "Good morning," she would say as the woman of the house answered the knock at the door, "I'm Alice Virginia, your Avon Representative. May I come in and show you my samples?" And she would walk into the kitchen, open her sample case, and proceed.

Spare change was tight, but almost everybody bought at least the four-ounce bottle of double-strength vanilla or the twenty-five-cent tube of Avon Hand Cream. "I swear, I'd buy anything from her just to hear her 'go on'," Old Mr. Poffenbarger said. "That kid could see roller skates to Eskimos in a blizzard."

By the end of August, when Alice had to return to school, she had sold enough Avon products to earn several silver-plated spoons, the Avon Company premiums.  She had also become New Boston's symbol of spunk in the face of hard times, a kid who wore a smile even without a sale. Her visits were as eagerly anticipated as Amos 'n Andy or the Lone Ranger, and they didn't cost much more.

Alice Virginia's summer left New Boston with enough hope and courage to get through the rest of the Depression, and more than enough double-strength vanilla to make angel-food cakes for every birthday, anniversary, and church social until well after World War II.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.