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Chuck Hinman: IJMA 098 : The Watkins Man story

Chuck Hinman's story about the days of the home delivery salespeople will resonate with people everywhere who recall their own Watkins salesperson. In Columbia, there was a Watkins lady who parked her Model A on the Jamestown Street side of town with containers of Watkins products on the hood. There were Watkins, Raleigh, Jewel T, and unbranded Overland Stores - drummers in panel trucks - from a mercantile group now reduced to mostly the Schwan's man. In all likelihood, the idea is not so much dead as it is less personalized. Truth be known, the volume of home delivery today far exceeds that of the past, but it's done with Kindle's and iPads and the US Post Office and the UPS man. Efficient, but not so personal, as illustrated in another of Chuck Hinman's wonderful columns. -EW
The next earlier Chuck Hinman column is: Chuck Hinman: IJMA No. 195: The passing of the dining roomBy Chuck Hinman

The economic distress of the times (1927-1942) caused every one to scramble to make ends meet.

The most desperate, and there were lots of them, were reduced to door to door begging. A step or two above begging were the door to door peddlers who sold everything from A to Z. A friend recently wrote of a man who walked the streets of Omaha with an adorable Shetland pony selling pony rides for a buck a ride. On large city streets people would sing or dance with a tin can nearby for a casual nickel or dime from a person whose heart had been touched by the performance. Sometimes the skill displayed was good but most often, very modest. One thing you could be sure of was that the need was genuine.

Most people my age have seen an organ grinder and monkey act and have been entertained enough that they doled out a few shekels to the monkey with a tin can who was a real ham.

But the blue ribbon award in all categories of plain old door to door peddling goes to the Watkins Man. In your area, he may have gone by other names such as the Raleigh Man or the Jewel T man. The method of peddling was the same.

In our neighborhood there was a party line network of farm women who kept each other informed who was headed their way. So with that kind of surveillance there weren't many surprises at your door. When the Watkins man knocked on our door, we weren't hiding in the closet. Mom had her apron off, our noses wiped like an old friend was expected. And in a way, the Watkins man was an old friend.

The Watkins man's visit was like a small store on wheels was about to be set up business in our house. Well, of course it was a thrill in a day when there weren't many thrills.

Walking up to our door he labored as he carried two bulky suitcases that when opened and assembled on our living room floor were eye-boggling. You cannot imagine how much merchandise could be arranged in an orderly manner on the shelves of those two suitcases. They came apart in the middle and were free-standing. The Hinman kids took seats on the floor waiting for the "show" to begin! We were in a word, "enthralled."

I couldn't begin to tell you all the products he carried. A few that Mom wouldn't be without were vanilla extract, salve, and horse liniment, the latter of which was said to be good for rheumatism OR to take the tarnish off silverware. I haven forgotten what it did for horses. In addition, there were household cleaning supplies, flavorings and seasonings, medical supplies and surgical dressings. I don't remember if he carried cosmetics.

The trunk and inside of his car were like a warehouse. If Mom decided on something, he filled the order from his car, not from his suitcases which were for display only.

I'm not sure how you explain that strange phenomenon; we hid in the closet from most peddlers and yet Mom found money to buy something from the Watkins man... and the Watkins man didn't have a monkey, just two big suitcases full of stuff that I wonder if we really needed.

I suppose we'll never know.

- Chuck Hinman

This story was posted on 2012-01-29 04:36:50
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