A tall, stovepipe hat. A buffalo skin fur coat. A peg leg and bushy beard. A Pittsburgh icon.
Charles Orton, better known as the XX Cough Drop Man, sold cough drops rain or shine on the corner of Market and Diamond Streets for forty years. A native of Allegheny City, presently known as the North Side, Orton was not only a cough drop salesman, but a walking history book, sharing stories of Pittsburgh neighborhoods through the years.
Joe Wos, Maze Toons creator and Essential Pittsburgh contributor says everyone in the late 19th century Pittsburgh knew Orton, but his story is much less well-known among Pittsburghers today.
“He is one of these great characters to get lost to history,” Wos says.
Prior to his cough drop career, Orton dabbled in several diverse areas from tightrope walking, to acting, to the Pony Express.
Wos says as a fourteen year old, Orton enlisted to fight in the Civil War. When he was told he was too young for combat, he joined the army as a drummer. His parents eventually found him and brought him home, only for him to run away to join the circus soon after.
During his time in the circus, he performed as a comedian, an actor, and a tightrope walker. He also led wagons across the plains, became a railway brakeman (losing his leg in the process), went shooting with Buffalo Bill, and acted in the original production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“He was just a natural at everything he tried,” Wos explains. “One day he decided ‘I want to do this’ and would just go off and do it, no matter how strange or outrageous a skill it was.”
With a desire to settle down, Orton eventually got married and returned to Pittsburgh.
On a trip to Philadelphia, Wos says he saw how the cough drop industry was booming. He decided to bring the industry to Pittsburgh, where he opened a small shop, and eventually took to the streets selling cough drops.
His nickname XX Cough Drop Man came from a failed political run in which he felt he was double crossed. Wos says he also came up with the original idea for lapel flag pins for politicians, but was never credited for it.
Although his story has been lost over time, Wos describes Orton as a hidden gem of the streets of 19th century Pittsburgh.
“He was just such a part of the culture that yes, they (Pittsburghers) would stop every day to pick up a couple of cough drops. He was an incredibly popular man.”
More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.