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Before there was a store on every corner

The Examiner

This pandemic kind of reminds me of my childhood in post-war America during the 1940s and early ’50s, with delivery trucks running everywhere up and down the neighborhood streets.

Back in those days many people still used the old ice box instead of an electric refrigerator. The ice man would deliver a 25-pound block of ice a couple of times a week. I never knew the man’s name, but he was always eager to take his ice pick and chip off a big chunk of ice for each of the neighborhood kids on a hot summer day.

Sometimes peddlers were a welcome sight on the old frontier – and sometimes not.

He was not the only delivery man to come by on a regular basis. There were also the coal man, bread man, milk man, the Fuller Brush man, and the Watkins man, just to name a few. Many people didn’t have automobiles back then, and the ones who did generally only had one per family. If dad drove it to work, then mom was stuck at home all day. So the merchants came to the housewives to supply their basic everyday needs.

These merchants were the outgrowth of the early-day medicine show and the peddler who played an important role in the building of America. The first generation of pioneers were denied access to the present-day supermarkets. In fact, many of the pioneers lived so far back off of the beaten path that they only made it to town a couple of times a year. So, they relied on the peddler or the door-to-door salesmen.

Ted Stillwell

They traveled on foot or on horseback before roads made wagons possible, and they carried everything a person might need: tinwork, clocks, buttons, combs and brushes, shoelaces, knives, fabric, and the latest news and gossip. In a time when communication was anything but instantaneous, the traveling salesman was a welcome sight and often shared a meal or even spent the night. In revolutionary Boston, Samuel Adams even distributed political broadsides by using the peddler to pass out his flyers.

Here on the 19th century frontier, peddlers also offered special services such as blacksmithing or firearms repair. If he could not repair a damaged weapon, he could always try to sell the needy pioneer a new one “lock, stock, and barrel.”

Because of their sometimes-seedy reputation though, not all of the peddlers were welcome on the frontier homestead. 

Benedict Arnold was a rather unscrupulous woolen peddler prior to getting into trouble with the army. Jim Fisk, a famous railroad tycoon of slippery morality, started as a tin ware peddler. He realized that the better known a salesman was, the more comfortable people felt buying from him, and so he instigated circus-type posters to advertise his arrival, and draped his wagon with flags and bunting.

Abraham Lincoln’s father was a part-time peddler, and so was Richard Sears, who sold watches. When he needed a watch repairman, he hired Alvah Roebuck. Together, the two of them did quite well. Peddler Alfred C. Fuller built a reputation as a polished salesman with his line of brushes that have also endured to this day.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to or call him at 816-896-3592.