Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Traveling salesmen enriched our lives

| August 2, 2020 1:00 AM

“Mom, the Rawleigh man is here,” I remember calling out to my mother every couple of months during my childhood. It was my duty to alert her of any incoming traveling salesmen — and there were several regulars — so she could quickly put on a pot of coffee, get a plate of cookies ready and tidy up the kitchen.

The Rawleigh man, as we called him (I think his last name was Odegaard), peddled two products my mother swore by: Rawleigh antiseptic salve and a medicated ointment that was sure to cure any cold or flu if you slathered it on your chest and throat and wrapped one of Dad’s wool socks around your neck. These healing balms came in decorated tins that later could be used to store any number of small items.

Door-to-door salesmen were a surprisingly important part of our lives in rural Minnesota, where trips to town weren’t that frequent. Another regular visitor was the Watkins man, who sold things like vanilla extract, black pepper and toilet-bowl cleaner, three items my mother always ordered from him.

These guys would make themselves at home in our kitchen, with their wares sprawled out on the kitchen table. The Fuller Brush man came around, too, but, for whatever reason, he was not afforded the same hospitality and quickly came and went. The Avon lady was the only female salesperson I recall, and mom was a lipstick user, so that gal was always assured of a sale.

Another benefit of accommodating the traveling salespeople was the news of the neighborhood they brought with them. They doled out scraps of gossip, and knew things, like whether or not Allan Bjornson had cut his first crop of alfalfa, or that Johnny Schenck had broken both arms falling out of the hayloft.

As we’re being forced to use self-checkout stands at the grocery and big-box stores, and ordering more things online, shopping has become a very impersonal undertaking. I guess it’s progress, and although I probably wouldn’t want salespeople knocking on my doors these days, the friendly exchange these kindly salesmen brought to our households so long ago somehow enriched our lives.

Mom always thought Dad was a little too gullible when it came to believing the sales pitches of various other peddlers who came our way. But in hindsight, I think my father knew a good deal and good quality when he saw it.

In the early 1970s a traveling salesman with Saladmaster talked up his cookware and offered to prepare an entire meal for our family using the special stainless steel kettles. Dad thought this was a great idea, so the salesman commandeered the kitchen and made dinner, and it was delicious. Dad was sold, and if I’m remembering correctly, he paid around $400 for the cookware set, a pretty big chunk of change back then.

But more than a half-century later we’re still using those kettles and food processor, so I guess it was money well spent.

Dad bought a Kirby vacuum cleaner from a door-to-door salesman that lasted 30-plus years. And like every other family in our neck of the woods, my parents purchased a set of World Book encyclopedias that were well-used through the years in that pre-internet era.

As shopping continues to change and evolve, the door-to-door selling model no doubt will be relegated to the annals of history. I remain a true believer of shopping local and buy as little as possible online. Maybe I’ll learn to love self-checkout stands, or ordering my groceries online and picking them up in the parking lot. Maybe not.

What I’m left with are the fond memories of yet another slice of life I feel fortunate to have experienced.

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.