Someone’s at the Door by
50
(99 Stories)

Prompted By Door-to-Door Sales

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When I was growing up in a split-level house in Verona, NJ, it seemed as if people came to the door frequently. Many delivered items such as milk. I barely saw the milkman, who came early, and left those beautiful glass bottles of rich white milk with the foil caps on top. Every once in a while on a cold winter morning, the milk would freeze, pushing up the foil caps.

The schtick was to make the parents guilty that their children were falling behind in school and things would get dire if they didn't get the encyclopedia.

Many families had only one car, so when the dads went to work (which was the norm), moms often relied on door-to-door deliveries for the basics. There was a bread truck called Dugan’s, and the salesman would drive up every couple of afternoons and ask my mom what she wanted. I believe there were choices of breads and rolls, but what I remember most was the occasional treat we got: cupcakes.

My mom would take a box of a half dozen, made with white cake and three types of frosting, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. The strawberry was more like a baby pink color. The cupcakes were huge, very filling, and very sweet. When I recently talked with my mother and mentioned the cupcakes, she remarked that they were actually very small. I’m glad my four-year-old self thought they were large!

The oddest food salesperson who came to the door was a potato chip man. He drove a yellow truck with black lettering that said “Charles Chips.” The only item he sold was potato chips, in a large cylindrical can with the same color and lettering as the truck had. The chips were OK, but were a favorite of my younger brother’s and our little across-the-street neighbor Adrienne. She had celiac disease, which had been only recently understood, and potato chips were one of the few safe snacks for her. We were taught early on not to share any of our other food with her, just potato chips.

The Fuller Brush Man and the Avon Lady did come occasionally, but money was tight for our family at that time and I don’t recall my mother buying anything from them. Perhaps a brush, but definitely not cosmetics. There was a vacuum cleaner salesman who was turned away, and he certainly would not have been allowed to sprinkle anything on our carpet! Although, it was a very thick green shag, and I think it would have hidden the dirt anyway.

I do recall an encyclopedia salesman coming to the door. The schtick was to make the parents guilty that their children were falling behind in school and things would get dire if they didn’t get the encyclopedia. I think you could buy one volume at a time. My mother wasn’t having any of that. We were doing very well in school and anyway, could use the set in the school library.

The Britannica stopped publishing in hard copy in 2012.

We also had our share of religious proselytizers, which was amusing because nearly everyone in a four-block area was Jewish (redlining was still very common). Our family turned them away politely. However, two doors up the street, Mrs. Lewis loved to engage them, especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who would be dressed in black suits and come down the street in pairs.

Deeply educated, Mrs. Lewis was a scholar of Judaism and a Hebrew school teacher who knew the Bible cold. She had dark, bobbed hair and wore big glasses, and would come to the door in a fancy dress and tottering in spike heels, all 4 feet ten inches of her. By the time she got done with them, the poor duo would be slinking down the street, tugging at their starched collars to dry the perspiration and running their fingers through their hair.

When I was 12 we moved to another town, which had hilly, winding streets and no sidewalks. The era of door-to-door deliveries and sales was declining. My family had two cars and my mother drove to the supermarket. Today, home deliveries are happening again, and they are very efficient, but contactless. We look through peepholes, or for the moment we speak through masks. It’s certainly not the same as the bread man or Avon Lady coming to the door.

 

 

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Marian, you and I came up with very similar titles – were you thinking of the Paul McCartney song too, or just a phrase that your family said?

    We had a milkman too, although, as you say, we never saw him. But we didn’t have Dugan’s! You and John both wrote about Dugan’s, and I’m wondering why I never heard of them. Possibly it was because there was an Acme three doors down from our house, so it was easy to walk there for any groceries we needed, and a bakery one block in the other direction. Maybe Dugan’s figured our neighborhood wasn’t a good prospect.

    • Marian says:

      I was thinking of the Paul McCartney song, but also we did say that phrase, Suzy. I would have sworn you would have had Dugan’s, but given that John’s neighborhood was rural, and my suburban town didn’t have stores within walking distance, your take makes sense.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Marian, I remember that bucket of Charles Chips too! Not sure where I would have seen them in Detroit (guess we had there too), but they are familiar. Funny that you, in NJ, and John, in CT, both had the Dugan’s Bakery delivery. It must have been a large operation, and those cupcakes sound yummy right about now, 5 weeks into quarantine.

    Believe it or not, our elementary school music teacher (not a door-to-door salesman) sold us our Encyclopedia (World Book). I used to pull out a letter and read the volume after dinner, if I was done with my homework. Now my San Jose kid reads Wikipedia in the same manner.

    • Marian says:

      I have no idea how far Charles Chips ranged, Betsy, and was surprised that you knew about them. Interesting that a teacher sold you the encyclopedia. Wikipedia certainly is convenient, but somehow I miss those volumes with the color photos and illustrations.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Marian, and, of course, I particularly love your very similar experiences, both with one car, and, especially, the Dugan’s man. However, I am pretty sure that the box held eight cupcakes, with there being four chocolate ones. In fact, I remember my father explaining to me that they must have done some “market research” and decided that most of their customers preferred the chocolate ones. It drove me a little nuts, as those were my least favorite.
    Also, thanks for the reminder about Charles Chips. I had them for the first time when we were visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins in Florida. I thought the Charles chips were far superior to the Dugan’s ones, but could not convince my parents that we should have the CC truck stop by as well. You can’t win ’em all….

    • Marian says:

      Well, I confirm the market research, John, being a chocoholic, although I’d eat all the cupcake flavors. Charles Chips in Florida! They must have been national, because Betsy remembers them from the Midwest. I believe people swapped the empty cans for full ones when the man came around the following week, because the cans were metal. Early recycling consciousness.

  4. I love that Mrs. Lewis enjoyed talking to the Jehovah’s witnesses. I have to think they preferred someone like her to those of us who politely but firmly closed the door in their faces, or more likely just hid behind the door and didn’t answer, then peeked out to watch them leave.

    Our milkman left our dairy products on the side porch in an icebox that had a latched door on the outside and deep inside another one leading into our house. We had something like a paper fan of products and would just pull out the ones we wanted the night before and they would magically appear the next morning…at least it seemed like magic to us kids because we never saw him. (I’m assuming it was a him; I don’t think there was such a thing as a “milkwoman” but I could be wrong.) I would sometimes secretly pull out the tab for chocolate milk…like you, I’m a lifelong chocoholic.

    We had a Helms Bakery truck that would come by and we’d actually hop on and the driver would pull out the wide drawers…they’d glide open on ball bearings, I can hear them now. Row after row of fresh donuts, some glistening, some powdered, some decorate with sprinkles. My brothers liked glazed, but I liked the cake donuts with chocolate frosting (of course).

    This prompt is evoking some great memories!

    • Marian says:

      Yup, the cake donuts with chocolate frosting were my faves as well, Barb. Getting hungry just thinking about it. There would be “milkwomen” now, of course, but back then I’m with you: rare if not at all. They don’t make bakery trucks like you describe any more, what a shame!

  5. Marian ,
    Thanx for the memories of a gentler snd more innocent time when we weren’t so wary when a stranger rang the bell!

    I don’t remember some of the sales people you mention, but I do remember a man who came to our door offering to sharpen knives and scissors, and my mother always let him in, and probably gave him a cup if tea!

    • Marian says:

      Dana, you reminded me of the knife sharpener guy who would come to the door. He had a white truck with all kinds of scary equipment in it. My mother didn’t let him in the house, though.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I love your memories of all of the home delivery people of your youth, I remembered some like the milkman., but had forgotten about the encyclopedia salesman. Yes, we did buy those for our kids, including the yearly supplements. They were well used, but the Internet made them obsolete and we just donated them to a place that promises they will recycle the paper. Of course, we had the Fuller Brush man, and my mom sold Avon. But I’ll bet you don’t remember the ice man. He delivered slabs of ice when I was a kid and gave us the shavings.

    • Marian says:

      Laurie, I guess the ice man was before my time, although I knew what he did. Didn’t realize that they still did it when you were growing up. By the time my family was in our first house, everyone had refrigerators (or Frigidaires, as my grandmother always called them). However, right after college I rented apartments in older buildings in Oakland. One particularly gracious place had an odd closet-like cabinet in the kitchen with open-weave doors. I learned it was a cooler. They didn’t put ice in it, but it let outside air circulate to keep items cooler most of the year. Of course, there was a refrigerator in the kitchen as well.

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