Somewhere in our family archives there is a professionally taken portrait of me, as a toddler, seated on a small table, holding a teddy bear and smiling at the camera.
Posing for that picture right in our West End living room is one of my earliest memories. The teddy bear is gone; the table is still in the family, and the smile remains, most of the time. It would have been taken in 1942 or ’43.
Searching for another photo recently, I came across that old “baby” picture, and it brought to mind a phenomenon in the West End of Duluth—but not unique to that neighborhood, surely—that has long-since disappeared from the Zenith City: door-to-door salesmen and solicitors, tramps and peddlers, and delivery men whose wares no longer are brought to residents’ doorsteps.
These men—and they were all men, together with a few boys helping the men—were a part and parcel of life in Duluth’s western neighborhoods until around the 1950s, slowly fading as times changed. A photographer who went door-to-door soliciting business took that portrait of me. My mother hired him on the spot.
He was far from alone. People of a certain age will recall the Fuller Brush men who made regular rounds in the neighborhoods, ringing doorbells and offering their goods. We bought brushes I’m sure we never used—but intended to someday—from the Fuller Brush man, so fabled in America that a movie of that title came out in 1948 starring Red Skelton. Readers old enough to remember Skelton probably remember Fuller Brush men.
The photographer and brush salesmen were the dressier visitors who went door-to-door—wearing suits and ties. All of our visitors were not so professional appearing. Like the scissors and knife sharpener.
The scissors and knife sharpener, as I recall him, was an old, white-haired shabbily dressed man who carried a wooden rack on his back which held a grindstone. A heavy load. He’d show up and, for a small fee, sit outside your home and sharpen your utensils, then hoist his heavy rack to his back and move on. They moved on into history when I was still a child.
My favorite frequent visitor was the iceman. Our home still kept food fresh in an icebox, a pre-electric refrigerator kitchen appliance that had space for blocks of ice, which drained when it thawed into a basin on the floor below. The homemaker would put a sign in the kitchen window on ice day indicating how large a block was needed when the iceman pulled up in his truck. A fridge didn’t replace our icebox until around 1950.
What I liked about the iceman was that he wore a cape. It was rubber, to protect him from cold and wet as he hoisted the ice blocks to his back with tongs and carried them into customers’ kitchens. That he wore a cape fascinated neighborhood children, who envisioned him as one of the cape-wearing superheroes like Superman and Captain Marvel. He was always good for a small chunk of ice to suck on on hot days.
In cooler months, the coal man joined the iceman, but he did not wear a cape; he was dressed in soot-filled work clothes. In those days, a large percentage of Duluth homes were heated with coal. Our house had oil heat, but many others in our neighborhood used coal, delivered in soot-encrusted trucks. Each coal-burning house had a basement coal bin, and the coal men carried large chutes with which to spill coal into residents’ basements. Kids always wanted to slide down the chutes, but were never allowed to.
As an aside, it is worth noting that with so much coal used to heat Duluth homes, in winter the surface of the snow became increasingly black with soot. Each snowfall was a welcome, if temporary, clean-up.
Let’s not forget the ragman. The ragman went around the neighborhoods filling the back of his open truck with old clothes or any other cloth residents would give him. There is an ethnic pejorative connected to the ragman that I wouldn’t consider repeating here, but I was in my 20s before I knew it was a pejorative. That’s what ragmen were called, no ethnic slur intended. The ragman was always cordially welcomed at our house.
I haven’t forgotten the milkman, the mailman (what letter carriers were called) and garbageman, whose services have lasted to this day. And the Avon ladies kept the practice up longer than most. But I don’t see the vegetable and fruit man making rounds anymore.
The West End was served by a Mr. Donaghy, who drove a truck powered by an early Ford, probably a Model A but it seemed older. The truck’s large covered box, with raised canvas side curtains in good weather, could only be described as a farmer’s market on wheels. Mr. Donaghy would show up on our block once a week in season, usually with a son or two to help.
My mother never failed to buy something, nor did the other women—yes, strictly women showed up at the truck—on our block.
And every so often a hungry wanderer—referred to as a hobo or bum—would knock on our back door asking to be fed. This was a vestige of the Great Depression, and the callers were usually along in years and entirely non-threatening. They were hungry, and knew kind-hearted homemakers would feed them. I can still see them sitting on our back porch steps chowing down.
And finally, a mention of a time long before I was born that involved door-to-door services. My mother was a pianist, and in her younger years gave piano lessons to West End youngsters. In those days—the 1920s—the piano teachers called on the homes of students, walking or riding the bus between appointments.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few door-to-door solicitors or vendors—encyclopedia salesmen lasted longer than most—but home sales are now left to the Girl Scouts with their cookies or high school kids seeking support for their teams hawking business discount cards. Anyone else might get the attention of the police.