Seventy-five years ago, when the telephone rang, you answered it fully expecting to hear a familiar voice on the other end of the line. Random sales calls were rare. Dialing the number took time and except for connecting with someone within the local exchange area, the telephone company charged the caller every time the connection was completed. Instead, sales calls were usually confined to connecting with previous customers to see if they were in need of replacing that three-year-old Nash Rambler or upgrading their Zenith television to the latest and greatest in home entertainment; a set that displayed the picture in “living color.”

Rather than attempting to entice customers to drive into the city to shop for whatever it was that a salesman was selling, in many cases, that salesman came to the potential customer’s home with samples and an order pad in hand. The door-to-door salesman was as an important part of American retailing as Amazon’s shop at home service is today. Just on a much smaller scale.

There were some products that were sold door-to-door that simply couldn’t be had any other way. The Electrolux vacuum cleaner was one such product. Advertised for a price of $69.75 in 1955, the lightweight machine was “Sold only on home demonstration by your friendly Electrolux man.” This proved to be a very successful method of selling for the company. Instead of investing heavily in brick-and-mortar stores along the busiest retail streets in America’s cities, the company was able to hire salespeople that exclusively handled their brand and who were paid only when they completed a sale. Electrolux salesmen were well trained and those who possessed the right temperament and people skills earned a good living.

The only way the consumer could purchase a new Electrolux vacuum cleaner was through a home visit by a factory representative.

Encyclopedias were another product that was sold almost exclusively door-to-door. The Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book brands were the best known and most successfully promoted. Encyclopedia salespeople were relentless with their sales pitch. “You want your children to get a fine education and succeed…” And there was little doubt that those fine looking twenty-four leatherbound editions that would be delivered right to your door would contain more knowledge than any single human being could ever possess. Throw in that world atlas with those fantastic colored overlays and the optional “Year Book” that would arrive at your home every twelve months with the latest news about political changes and scientific discoveries and your child would be practically guaranteed acceptance into the Ivy League school of his or her choice. By the time the salesman got to the important part – the staggering price – most parents were already sold. Prices of $800 to $1,000 were the norm, with the salesman making between a thirty and fifty percent commission depending upon his sales volume. In the days before most people had even heard of credit cards, the encyclopedia companies all had “easy payment plans” that made their product at least sound more affordable than it actually was. Who couldn’t be convinced that their child’s future wasn’t worth that $19 per month payment?

At their peak, Britannica employed over 2,300 salespeople. Due to their annoying persistence, encyclopedia salesmen were often comically depicted in the media. In one 1960’s Monty Python television sketch, a suspicious housewife allows a masked burglar to enter her house to rob her after he promises her that he won’t try to sell her an encyclopedia. However, once inside, he removes his mask and starts his sales pitch. When printed encyclopedia sales ceased in the early 2000’s, I have little doubt that many of these salespeople migrated to peddling timeshares in Aruba.

The Watkins man was a regular visitor to most homes. Unlike the previous two examples of door-to-door salesmen, the Watkins representative sold a variety of products and called on his customers more frequently. These people were independent businessmen who represented the J. R. Watkins Company out of Winona, Minnesota. While they carried some of their product line in their vehicles, much of what they sold was shipped directly from the company post sale. How often they called on each of their customers depended largely on the amount of product and how often that customer purchased it.

The J.R. Watkins Company was founded in 1868 and relied on door-to-door salesmen to sell their products.

Ours came about once a month. He was a tall, pleasant mannered man who always greeted the kids with a Tootsie Pop as he entered the back door. He drove a late 1940’s Desoto business coupe. That body style looked much like an ordinary two-door sedan, but the trunk extended all the way into the interior of the passenger compartment, eliminating the back seat and instead providing a carnivorous trunk space that was seven or eight feet from the rear to the front. An ingenious design that many route salesmen used to carry their products.

The Watkins company had a full line of products, but its most popular items included spices and extracts used in cooking along with their own line of cleaning products and oils used for home maintenance. I remember my mother always buying their vanilla extract and some liniment my father used. The Watkins man was always a welcome visitor and I am certain my mother always found a “need” to buy something so that his stop at our house wasn’t a wasted one.

The Fuller Brush man was another regular, only ours came only a couple of times a year. Whether it be a mop, a broom, a dust brush, a bottle brush, or anything else that even resembled a brush, Fuller made it. The agent carried dozens of samples and orders were shipped directly to the customer’s house or place of business within just a few days.

Alfred Fuller began his brush making business in Hartford in 1906. It was so successful that he placed an advertisement in “Everybody’s Magazine” looking for agents to sell his merchandise. Within a few months, he had over 260 independent agents going door-to-door selling his ever-growing line of brushes. Fuller had every agent sign this pledge: “I will be courteous; I will be kind; I will be sincere; I will be helpful.”

In what would turn out to be a rather novel approach to being welcomed into people’s homes, Alfred Fuller insisted his agents wear rubber overshoes one size too big. That way, if they got invited into the home, they could quickly and easily remove their snowy or muddy footwear prior to entering their customer’s home.

Most people remember the milkman, or at least hearing about him. Coming by every couple of days, these men knew their customers well, usually referring to the kids of each house by their first names. Milk and cream were delivered in bottles and the empties were put out for the milkman to bring back to the dairy where they would be sanitized and refilled. Most milkmen also delivered butter and eggs, and some even sold ice cream.

Ours was named John, and John was a partner with one of his brothers in a local dairy that processed milk from several area farms. Whenever we were home, John would knock on the kitchen door and then walk in to put his delivery into the refrigerator. If we were out, he would leave everything in the small, tin box bearing the dairy’s name that sat beside the rear door.

This Divco milk truck was designed to be driven while the operator was standing!

John’s milk truck was a DIVCO – the acronym for the Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company, the major producers of route delivery vehicles for small dairies like his. The snub-nosed truck was short in length but quite tall in stature, allowing the driver to operate the truck while standing. To facilitate stand-up driving there was a simplified control system, known as Step-N-Drive, that combined the clutch and brake in a single pedal, while a hand throttle was incorporated into the shift lever. A swing-away pedestal seat allowed the driver to sit down for extended journeys of more than a block or two. When folded up and swung out of the way, the operator could quickly move to the rear, load his wire basket, and be out of the truck in a matter of just a few seconds. The dairy products were kept cool by an abundance of ice that was held in an insulated box-like section in the rear of the truck. One might imagine that learning to drive one of these vehicles would have taken both a great deal of patience as well as a good deal of practice.

During the summer and autumn months, fresh fruit and vegetables were sold out of the back of either an open pickup truck or a panel truck that had been specially converted with slightly angled bins to display produce that was accessed from the outside of the vehicle. This style of delivery vehicle had roll up canvas sides that kept the weather out and the product in while moving. A metal hanging scale like one still sees in many produce aisles hung in the rear to weigh the purchases. These setups were true mobile farmer’s markets during an era when very few rural families owned two cars, so having fresh food brought directly to the house was extremely convenient.

A true mobile farmer’s market came right to your door every week during the summer & fall.

International Harvester had an assembly plant in Bridgeport that produced its Metro line of small delivery vans. These vehicles were extremely popular with small businesses that operated route delivery services. They were small enough to fit into tight spaces, but large enough to carry enough product to last a day’s worth of home deliveries.

In our neighborhood, there were three such vans that operated home routes on a regular basis.

One was a bakery out of Bridgeport. Perhaps my favorite route-man, he arrived in our driveway about twice a month. The smell of fresh bread and pastries was a delight, and the manner in which they were displayed in the walk-in van made them practically irresistible. Except to my dear mother who knew that whatever was onboard far exceeded her cost to make it herself. Luckily for me there were two or three kinds of cookies that were liked by only me and she allowed me to mix and match about a half dozen of them whenever the driver stopped at our house. On some occasions, if it was late enough in the day and the driver had a surplus of fresh bread or pastries that needed to be sold, he would lower the price enough so that my mother would relent and purchase some tasty breads or donuts that the entire family could enjoy.

Introduced in 1938, the International Harvester Metro-Van would dominate the urban delivery market for the next twenty-plus years.

Another route-van was owned by a laundry that operated out of Danbury. That vendor only stopped at our house a on few occasions until he realized that my mother wasn’t going to be a customer. There were two or three wealthy housewives on our street who were willing to pay the fare to have their husband’s shirts washed, starched, and ironed every week, but my mother wasn’t one of them.

The final Metro route-van belonged to a dry-cleaning business that picked up delivered anything that needed to be cleaned and pressed. I suspect that the cost for this service at least slightly exceeded what the traditional dry-cleaning establishment would charge, since my mother would only use them during those months when the weather was so bad that she preferred to stay home and have the groceries delivered from either Halzack’s or the Redding Ridge Market, both of which offered that service free of charge.

The big blue Amazon truck has now replaced practically all of the above home delivery services. While ordering online may be a simpler and less expensive process, the human interaction of the past is now gone. Simply think of something you need and within 24 hours it is often shipped and arriving at your door. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, or perhaps I miss those Tootsie Pops, but shopping at home just isn’t as much fun as it was when Ike was the president and Superman rescued Lois Lane every week on the television.

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books