Rick Houser
Rick Houser

By Rick Houser
HCP columnist

My wife and I were talking about how our grandmothers were of that generation who cooked from scratch and did it so very well. They had to – as in the 1950s and '60s, fast foods and meals that go from the freezer to the oven and then served were yet to exist. As we talked, we both mentioned vanilla extract and almost at the same time said the same thing. They would only buy it from one place only and that was the Watkins Man.

There was a time not so long ago when the vendors would bring the products to you. The Watkins Man was in my mind a panel truck that carried dry goods to the folks who lived in the country or didn’t have transportation to go to a store. They specialized in baking goods and medical supplies of its time along with items of this and that. As a matter of fact that truck would carry over four hundred items that the house wife just couldn’t do without and thanks to him they didn’t have to.

I know my Grandma Houser would keep a running list hanging in her kitchen of what she was going need. Since he only appeared about once every few months, that list could get somewhat long. I know it always interested me to watch my grandma do her shopping from her sidewalk and barter with the Watkins Man who I think she really enjoyed visiting with as she shopped and he made a living. (Both walked away a winner on those days.)

Before the mid-70s, the housewife in many cases never learned to drive and those who did have a driver’s license didn’t have her own car. Families in those days survived with one car for the entire family. (Just how did they survive?) So door-to-door salesmen served a greatly needed purpose.

Now it wasn’t just the stores on wheels that came a knocking. Back in those years and before the advent of google and many other sites on the computer, the door-to-door salesman did and with no shipping charge and they delivered to your door. Pretty advanced for the time now wasn’t it? I have seen peddlers at our door wanting to sell my folks anything from roofing to a set of encyclopedias. Google put them out of business and opened up a shelf on the book case. Salesmen have offered Mom sets of cookware to silver polish. We were even offered an aerial photo of our farm. I must say that this is one of the few who made a sale at our home. (As a matter of fact, it is hanging on the wall right behind me!)

I was a little boy when the Watkins Man came around, but I knew by the color and size of his panel truck who he was and to Grandma and my mom he was a person they felt they needed to see. He came with a strong reputation and was in good standing. I have heard my father tell that my great-grandmother would look forward to his arrival and kept a list of items she needed. This would have been in the 1920s and earlier, and when he did arrive my great-grandfather would come in from the field too, as he would say to keep an eye on him. Truth was he wanted to see what if anything was new that the man had to offer.

Just think about that for a minute. A stranger would pull up your driveway and walk to the door as if he was an old friend. In those days, it would be safe to figure that few came to your door in a week and those more than likely were known. So the Watkins Man was a huge event to folks living out in the country.

I do recall that when he would stop at Grandma’s house he would always have some new news or what he had heard at her neighbor's home he had been to just before he came to her house. Grandma wasn’t one to tell gossip but she was one that would listen. Again this isn’t available on Amazon.

In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, almost all foods were made from a list of ingredients and a salesman that carried most or many of the ingredients was truly popular. If a good cook – which most every housewife was – didn’t have enough vanilla extract or the needed spices, a kitchen could come to a shutdown and the husband would stop his work and take his wife to the store so she could stock up and get that kitchen going at full cooking again. (Man doesn’t live on bread alone, but he sure will suffer without it!)

Don’t try to tell me those weren’t good years. When the salesman brought the products to your home and would carry them into your kitchen at no extra charge, just had to be a time that was good. I know my mom and grandma would only buy sewing needles from the Watkins Man along with certain threads and yarns. They both were very good at sewing and they both were excellent quilters. Without the proper needles and threads, their job would become very difficult.

Of course times have changed and changed drastically. Today at the touch of a button you can order anything this world has to offer. Of course it takes three to five days for it to get to you. I can order from my computer, my cell, my iPad, etc. To order is very easy and quick to do. But see how fast it is to refund something if the wrong item was delivered.

When it was a door-to-door salesman if he carried in an incorrect item, he took it back to the panel truck right then and you got an apology right then also. And one more time just so you remember he would carry it in for you and even put it on the shelf for you if you wished and as he was doing so he has keeping you up on the current events in your neighborhood. Try to get that from Amazon and see what you get? I bet you don’t get a bit of gossip!

Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. If you wish to read more of his stories he has two books for sale. He can be reached at houser734@yahoo.com.