Column: In past days, it seemed there was often someone at the door
Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared June 17, 2006.
WORTHINGTON — John Thrall was one of my high school pals. I was remembering lately — it would be on a day such as this, through the four summers he was at college — that John went door to door from one Minnesota town to the next selling Encyclopedia Britannica. I believe if you agreed to buy a set of encyclopedias, John would give you the first volume, A to ATTU, free.
During a part of that same time, I was going farm to farm in the local area selling Daily Globes. I gave a Daily Globe free to everyone I called on and then tried to persuade them to become subscribers. The Daily Globe sold well in the towns of our region, but there were circulation gaps across some of the farmlands. Farmers resisted getting a Tuesday afternoon paper with their Wednesday morning mail.
(This is true: it was Globe policy never to bad mouth competitors. I never told farm families the Friday morning papers they got from other publishers were printed Thursday afternoons, same as the Globe. Some other publishers simply changed their datelines to read Friday rather than Thursday.)
John and I were two from — half-a-million? — who once set out on summer mornings to sell everything from magazines to horse blankets. People going door to door were part of our summer experience.
Many remember the iceman, of course. My iceman was Rueben Stowe. Rueben would stop his truck to deliver ice. He would chip off a pound or two. We kids were right there to pick up the chips. (I used to wonder why every iceman chipped off a pound from a block of ice, or a couple of pounds. Maybe he did it just for the kids. The chips could not be saved; might as well give someone 51 pounds of ice as 50 pounds.)
In my neighborhood, there sometimes were school boys going door to door with live chickens that strayed from J.C. Boote Produce or Farmer’s Produce or Worthmore.
Men came selling strawberries or sweet corn.
The Watkins man and the Jewel Tea man — only two of several brands — the Watkins man and the Jewel Tea man came year-around, but on summer days they sought out new customers and sometimes offered free samples door to door.
Watkins products still are popular. I don’t know about Jewel Tea. For many years, Jewel Tea gave dishes and glassware as premiums. I learned these old Jewel Tea premiums command fancy prices on eBay auctions.
Insurance salesmen went door to door, not only to sell insurance but also to make collections on premiums. Mr. Gottschalk was our man. Mr. Gottschalk came once each month to collect a premium payment. He put a check mark on a page in his big book each time a payment was made.
In a time I don’t remember, peddlers were common on the summer scene, especially on the farms. Peddlers might offer — well, anything. Everything. Notions. Pins and needles and buttons. Yardgoods and foot powder. Peddlers often would take a chicken, a comb of honey or a loaf of bread in exchange for something from their inventories.
There were specialists. Men with grindstones went farm to farm and house to house offering to sharpen scissors or kitchen knives or hatchets for used for chopping kindling. Other men made a specialty of umbrellas. They had black cloth for re-covering umbrellas, and they were deft at restoring or replacing umbrella ribs. There also were junk men.
I never have been clear about lightning rod salesmen. Lightning rod salesmen were common in that time when only catchers wore baseball caps backward. Many, many houses had lightning rods. Some of these were a wonder to see. Some were like sculpture: stately, pointed rods decorated with colored glass balls and other ornaments. There was a copper wire strung from a lightning rod to the ground.
Were lightning rods a scam? I don’t know. There were people — well, Henry Ford — who said you were foolish not to have them.
Men and boys and women moved door to door, town to town, farm to farm with books and newspapers and ice and spice and grindstones and sweet corn and pins. I think I miss them.