Lapel legacy: Pittsburgh vendor created iconic flag pin
Over the past 250 years, Pittsburgh has had its fair share of colorful characters and iconic Americans: Stephen Foster, Andy Warhol, Sophie Masloff and Myron Cope to name a few. Many of them embody a uniquely Pittsburgh character intertwined with an all-American spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. Some are icons in and of themselves, while others have given us iconic Pittsburgh famous firsts, such as the Big Mac and the polio vaccine.
Of all the characters this city has ever known, perhaps the most colorful of them all was Charles H.L. Orton, the XX Cough Drop Man. His is a name long since forgotten, but now is the perfect time for the restoration of his remarkable legacy, which includes a small accessory that is seen daily on politicians throughout the United States — the flag pin.
Orton was born in Allegheny City on April 1, 1846. For more than three decades, he was a fixture at the junction of Diamond and Wood streets. He sold cough drops on the corner, but he was much more than a street peddler.
Though small in stature, he was an imposing figure with his silk top hat, buffalo-skin coat, bushy beard and wooden leg.
His life reads like a dime novel: Each time a new chapter called him westward, he would reinvent himself. He had been an actor in the first touring company of “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” hunted buffalo alongside “Buffalo Bill” Cody, worked on the Pony Express and as a tightrope walker, circus ringmaster, race-track tout, comedian, gambler, river-boat ferry captain and more.
Orton's wooden leg was the result of an accident suffered while he was working as a railroad brakeman. It was one of the few stories he didn't often share. It was the result of a clumsy fall rather than a great adventure.
Each time he left, the pull of Pittsburgh kept bringing him back.
After marrying, he put his wanderlust behind him, fully embracing home life in Pittsburgh. By 1885, he was making a living as a gambler, occasionally heading to Philadelphia's racetracks; it was there he stumbled upon the cough drop. He took on the identity of the XX Cough Drop Man and set up shop in Pittsburgh.
The “Double Cross” moniker was the result of a run for office. When he lost, he felt the people had double-crossed him, so he took on the nickname out of spite. It wasn't his only venture into politics: He ran for coroner in 1898 as an independent candidate.
Standing on the corner day in and day out, Orton began to experiment with creating and peddling other wares besides his cough drops and score sheets for the newly named Pittsburg Pirates.
With a new swell of patriotism in the late 1910s, he had seen peddlers selling flags for folks to wave at parades and festivities. Rather than limit himself to such events, he came up with a way to display the flag year-round in a show of patriotism and pride. He began making small flag pins to wear on lapels. Those lapel pins took Pittsburgh by storm and were worn by citizens and politicians alike citywide.
Unfortunately for Orton, his story as told in the Dec. 26, 1920, Pittsburgh Post was lost to time.
A 2008 Time Magazine story on flag pins doesn't mention Orton and his innovation. It incorrectly quotes an “expert” who claimed the pins weren't worn before 1940 and credited Richard Nixon in the 1970s as the first political figure to popularize the pins.
But Orton had already made those pins popular in Pittsburgh in the early 1900s. By 1920, he was creating thousands and selling them throughout the city. He even sent a box to president Woodrow Wilson, whom he supported.
Wilson was grateful for the gift and responded with a letter and signed photograph — a photograph of him wearing the pin on his lapel at his inauguration.
That little flag pin secured the Old Reliable XX Cough Drop Man a place in history. Tomorrow, on Election Day, you'll probably lose count of how many of those little pins politicians will be wearing.
Joe Wos is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.