Footprints of Fayette

Watkins Products Salesman (from Carolyn Heinsohn postcard collection).

A Historical Column From The Fayette County Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge’s Office

Services, Trades & Occupations of By-Gone Days
By Carolyn Heinsohn

New inventions and technology, changes in our lifestyles, disposable commodities and the need for “instant gratification” have all contributed to the disappearance of certain services, trades and occupations, some of which were needed for daily living in the past. These services and occupations unfortunately have faded away into the annals of history. 

However, some senior citizens still have memories of the people who provided these necessary services and products that were not readily available elsewhere due to a number of factors. Transportation was slow, stores that could provide the needed supplies were few and far between and sometimes understocked, and the time that it took to seek out a source for those services and items meant time away from one’s work, so anyone who could fulfill those needs was truly appreciated.   

In the 19th century, there were “pack peddlers” – men who virtually carried mini-general stores in their wagons. They sold everything from sugar, flour, salt, pepper and spices to pots and pans, utensils, small tools, nails, shoes, hats, fabrics, laces and ribbons and all things in-between. Occasionally, there were also women, usually older single or widowed women, who traveled around selling millinery supplies, women’s corsets, bustles, shoes, dressmaking supplies, plus rose water and castile soap, which was much preferred over homemade soap for face washing and shampooing.

Before mass manufacturing of shoes, one went to a cobbler to purchase custom-made shoes. Every family, however, generally had shoe forms, tack hammers, awls and shoe tacks at home with a supply of shoe leather, soles and heels with which to do minor repairs. As time moved on, one went to the local shoe shop to have soles and heels replaced or other repairs made to shoes and leather items. Now shoes are discarded instead of repaired, and shoe repair shops are difficult to find.

Of course, every community had one or two blacksmiths who made and repaired anything made of iron. Horseshoes, plowshares, branding irons, tools and wagon wheels were always in demand. Many times, a farmer would learn the trade for his own personal needs, as well as providing for the blacksmithing needs of his surrounding neighbors, especially when a blacksmith shop was too far away to be convenient.

Before the era of electric refrigerators, people who owned ice boxes had to regularly replenish their blocks of ice. A placard was placed on the front screen door to alert the ice man who drove throughout town looking for potential customers. He brought in the dripping block of ice with large tongs and placed it in a small metal receptacle in the ice box. If additional ice was needed for cooling beverages or making homemade ice cream, people went to the local ice house to purchase a block of ice. There was no ice crusher – an ice pick and “elbow grease” did the job!

There was an elderly black man who lived in La Grange who was a “pot tinker.” In the 1940s and early 1950s, he drove a wagon pulled by mules throughout town looking for interested customers. He would actually repair holes in pots, buckets and other containers, mostly graniteware and enamel, which were more likely to develop holes where chips had occurred. He also sharpened scissors and knives and did other minor repairs of household items. 

Some traveling salesmen in years past were sources of convenience items that made lives easier. They also provided medicinal products that could potentially save a trip to the doctor. The Watkins Products salesmen sold extracts and spices, as well as liniments, tonics and salves that could be used on humans and animals. Many of the early Watkins salesmen had wagons, some of which were enclosed, with the Watkins logo painted on the sides, so that they would be easily recognized as they approached their customers. Later there were also Fuller Brush salesmen, who had a wide selection of brooms, mops, brushes, dusters and other cleaning tools, and the Stanley Products sales persons, who provided an assortment of cleaning supplies and tools. There were door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen, as well as those who sold “waterless” cookware, encyclopedia sets, greeting cards and Bibles.

People who lived in cities also had the “luxury” of having milk and eggs delivered right to their front doors. Sometimes, homes had small insulated boxes on the front porches where the milk and eggs could be placed to keep them cool until picked up by the homeowners. In fact, some of these deliverymen were so trusted that they were allowed to enter unlocked homes unannounced to place the milk and eggs directly into the ice boxes or refrigerators.

When mail order companies like Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were created, they provided a tremendous source of readily available manufactured products, including furniture, heaters, cook stoves, washing machines, clothing, dishes, tools, musical instruments and decorative items. They even offered all of the materials needed to build houses, some of which are still standing. The general merchandise mail order companies all contributed to the eventual decline of the pack peddlers and door-to-door salesmen.

Most of these services from by-gone days are now nostalgic memories for senior citizens and unknown entities to the younger generation, who cannot comprehend anything that is not disposable, purchased at a mall, a “big box” store or ordered online.