Monday, July 21, 2014

Door-To-Door Salesmen ... Nearly All Men

Photo: Tim Bradley (Getty Images)
When I was a child about ten years old, or younger (not so much later on) we had vendors who came to the house to sell their goods. We got to know our egg mana farmer with grey hair and glasses, who owned land outside the city limits. He sold us eggs for several years, and if he came at the right time, sometimes had a cup of coffee or a bite of lunch with us. Sadly, he died in a farm accident. His tractor flipped over as he plowed his fields, crushing him. I was a sensitive city child, so the news haunted me. Still does!

Another hard working farmer, who's name I never knew, didn't actually go door-to-door, he walked the neighborhood, shouting, "Strawberries, strawberries, strawberry man!"

Joe was our potato chip man. Mentally slow, he was friendly, a gentle soul with lovely manners. When we answered our front door even on the hottest day, he was dressed in a suit and tie and said, "Hello, Mrs. (or Mr.) Turner, it's the potato chip man." We offered him cold drinks in the summer. Joe lived in a men's rooming house and supplemented a modest retirement check (of some kind?) by visiting our block once a week ... always on foot, carrying shopping bags full of potato chips. When I think about him, it's with great admiration.

We also had a Fuller Brush manwho went door-to-door, selling household cleaning products, as well as, the tools needed to get rid of grime. And just like in so many American communities, we had an Avon lady. Mrs. McBay.

There are baby pictures of my cousins and I ... because one afternoon my Aunt Ursula, while at home minding us, got a knock on the door from a door-to-door family photographer. He spent the next hour, or so in her living room setting up lights and snapping pictures of us, together and separately. (We were 18 mos, 3 1/2 years and 5 years old.) Wow, can you imagine! It was a more innocent era.

All these people were so darn nice, you didn't have the heart to turn them away, so we tried to help them out by buying their goods and services when we could.

What a blessing to live in such a safe world back in the day. Fortunately, these small-time entrepreneurs were, indeed, nice people, most with families to support, who were just trying to make an honest living. Ordinary, dignified, hard workers from bygone days. The neighborhood was kind to them, and they were kind to the neighborhood.

Times change. You don't have to be a sociologist to know nobody could be a door-to-door sales person in the same way today. With good reason, we don't trust people we barely know, and often they don't become part of the milieu of a neighborhood. Too often good will doesn't run both ways. But once upon a time in my old neighborhood, it did.

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  1. Lovely memories Debra. We never had an egg or strawberry man, but did have a milkman, baker, groceries and other services come to the door. My father worked for some years in this capacity when we were tiny, something like the Fuller Brush man, selling essences, medicinals, spices etc. door to door. He made a good living from it, enough to open his own premises after a few years and branch out into other types of selling. Yes, it would never happen today.

    1. I replied to your super interesting comment, but I always forget to hit "reply" so it's under "comments." I'm thinking if I hit "reply" you'd know I did so, but don't otherwise.

  2. Patricia, I'm glad you chimed in on this topic. You must be proud of your dad knowing he was industrous and motivated to provide a good life for his family. He sounds like a great guy. Wouldn't it be fun to sample some of his essences, spices and medicinals today? Top quality, I bet.

  3. Leaving the men or women issues aside, the peddlers, especially around the South, were progenitors of some huge retail chains. On the Jewish angle, Macy's, Sears, Gimbels, Sterns and Filene's- plus many others started out with traveling salesmen moving around by horseback initially and then I guess by car. With online selling, it's hard to know what direction the whole retail biz will go. In studying the dynamics of these industries also intriguing to think about suburban setting (people driving around in their cars) versus urban (people by stuff but then need to hassle with delivery or pickup). During times that I've been an urbanite, I always had a car and would shop in the suburbs or exurbs.

    1. I never stopped to think that Mr. Macy and the rest began their retail careers as traveling salesmen, but it makes perfect sense. They started small, then expended.