Door-to Door Peddlers

by Barbara L. Rothschild


Today, a lot of us use catalogues or the internet to do our shopping. I am a very devoted shopper myself on Ebay, as an example of how technology has changed the way we live and make some of our purchases. We can pay our bills, find cars and homes, and explore the nether parts of the universe by a mere click on our computer keyboards.

In my childhood days in Newark, living at 321 Belmont Avenue, I recall some of the shopping that was done by our parents and neighbors at that golden time in our lives.

No one frequented the large and overly abundant supermarkets we know today. Although there were a few larger markets such as the A & P,(Elizabeth Avenue), and the Acme (the intersection of Clinton Avenue and Broad Street), and the Food Fair, (Clinton Avenue, Clinton Hill section), most families depended on the neighborhood and local mom-and-pop grocery stores. Our family frequented Baer's Grocery and Herbie (Shapiro's?) smaller version on Belmont Avenue. No coupons or complicated sales brochures, just cash-and-carry merchandise, and even sometimes, "credit" based on your family's name. Recognition of neighbors by first name was the password usually to needed items dealing in foodstuffs. No computers or adding machines, to add up your cost, just a pencil and paper sack, figured manually by the grocer. How many times, one's mother ran out of milk or eggs, and off you would be sent down the street to let the grocer know what supply was lacking, and off you would go supply in hand to a waiting mother.

Clothing? Off you went to Clinton Avenue merchants, such as Liebeskind's Childrens' Shop. On Springfield Avenue, near Prince Street, it was the London's' Childrens' Apparel Shop, notwithstanding the many other local merchants who thrived on Prince Street. From gloves to girdles to live chickens, it was all there within reach of your neighborhood! Going "Downtown" to shop in the large department stores, was the really big event, usually reserved for back-to-school bargains, (at S. Klein's, usually), and for "special" occasions at Hahne's, Bamberger's Kresge's or Ohrbachs department stores. You might get to even enjoy a snack at Schraffts or later in time, a delicious donut and maybe even a coffee at Chock ful' O' Nuts on Market Street, near the A. S, Beck and Kitty Kelly Shoe Stores, and right next door to Ohrbachs.

However, there were a few items which could only be purchased from door-to-door salespeople, and as such, they were always usually men who peddled these items. In the springtime usually, our apartment would be visited by the Fuller Brush Man. Mother always made some of those purchases, and usually, he would leave a "free sample" brush of some kind, probably a small vegetable brush, for scrubbing veggies or potatoes. Mother bought all manner of brushes, as I recall it, brushes to clean the stove, (no self-cleaning ovens or "Easy Off" back in the day, just a lot of elbow grease!) Toothbrushes, stove brushes, vegetable brushes, the Fuller Brush Man had them all! As a "bonus" gift for purchasing from him, he might give you a circular tin mothball holder to hang in the closet, or perhaps some other kind of "free" brush or product sample. Of course, purchasing the moth balls was another extra! Who could ever forget the vile smell of those mothballs? At the first sign of spring, mother would relegate all woolen clothing to a closet which reeked of that same odor which I can still conjure up in my mind, unfortunately! 
Another door-to-door peddler was the fruit/vegetable man. Once a week or so, early in the morning, his arrival would be heralded by the sound of his voice loudly touting his wares: P-E-A-C-H-E-S! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!, as his old horse and equally old wagon, clippety-clopped down the streets of the neighborhood. Three pounds for a dollar, or whatever the going price, was usually emphasized in his spiel. The mom and pop groceries in the vicinity would dread his arrival, because he always seemed to undercut and offer better prices to the eager neighborhood mothers. They would hurry down and flock from the highest floors, in many cases, from their apartment buildings, and congregate like swarming bees in a flower bed, to grab up some of the bargains. Mothers would always insist on "doing the picking", selection of fruit, lest the fruit man slip in a few overripe fruits or vegetables! The fruit man would always arrive in a wooden wagon,with his horse, an old farm house nag of indeterminate breed, wearing a battered old straw hat, sometimes one with an artificial flower in its brim. On the back of the wagon, was a swinging metal scale, which the mothers scrupulously watched as the fruit man weighed the purchased goods. One of my favorite memories from my childhood is bringing out a bucket of water to give that poor old steed, who so dutifully pulled that wagon in the warmest of days. I can recall the fruit man placing a feedbag on the horse's face, to placate him while the selling was going on. Occasionally, he would allow me to pet the poor creature's face. As as animal lover until this day, that would be a special treat for me to acknowledge that poor old horse, in such a childlike and kindly manner. Although, by today's standards it would be considered abusive to an animal to work in such warm conditions, there somehow seemed to be a warm rapport, a special bond, if you will, between vendor and faithful horse. 
My mind's eye also recalls an African-American man,whose name was Raymond, who was said to be an alcoholic. He would somehow materialize in the Springtime, and offer to clean windows, following the long winters of deposited Newark sleet and snow. No one even knew where Raymond lived, but his appearance would always herald the coming of warmer weather. His sworn method to clean would always employ vinegar and water, followed by vigorous drying of the glass surfaces, old newspapers. To this very day, I still find this to be the best method to clean windows! A product called "Glass Wax", a pink liquid which dried into a powdery substance to be wiped off, came on the market in the early 1950's. However, Raymond would not hear of it...."too many streaks left", was Raymond's claim. Nothing would beat the old vinegar and water approach!

Another frequent neighborhood peddler was the butter and egg man. I recall his name as being one Mr. Pomerantz. He would make his deliveries from a wooden picnic basket type carrier, selling and bringing farm fresh eggs and butter. I do not know Mr. Pomerantz' point of departure. I believe I recall my mother saying he came up to Newark from Vineland, where he had a chicken farm, and was a Jewish refugee survivor of a concentration camp. A special delight of mine as a child were the double yolks, which my mother would occasionally petition Mr. Pomerantz to garner for our family, when the opportunity arose. I recall Mr. Pomerantz making the rounds of all twenty apartments in our building at 321 Belmont Avenue, leaving with funds which, I might imagine, made his trip from "far away" Vineland worthwhile. And it was on to the next apartment building as well!

In the mid 1950's, Mr. Pomerantz' travels to Newark suddenly stopped. However, in lieu of those dairy expeditions of Mr. Pomerantz, one of our neighborhood families, who lived at 328 Belmont Avenue, opened a dairy store on Clinton Place. It was called Abramson's Dairy store, and within, one could purchase all manner of dairy and eggs, far out rivaling the simplistic deliveries of Mr. Pomerantz. I recall the store as being just at the bend of Clinton Place, next to where later stood Goldman's Pharmacy, as one approached Lyons Avenue. At one point, I resided at 188 Clinton Place, and recall the store was one short block away. One could purchase all types of cheese, block butter, "potcheese", also called "farmers' cheese",(no preservatives or guar gum within its content), block cream cheese with chives, which was always cut with a serrated device, and sold by the block and pound amount.

An almost daily delivery was made by the milkman, leaving Borden's products, (think Elsie the Cow, and Elmer), leaving quart glass milk bottles in a metal container kept outside the apartment door, for this express purpose. Among other dairy companies in Newark I also recall the Alderney Dairy, which was located on Bridge Street. I fondly and especially recall a second grade field trip to the dairy, accompanied by our dear Avon Avenue second grade teacher, Mrs. Citret, a kindly elderly teacher and grandmother. The highlight of this trip ended with all of us school children receiving a treat of free vanilla ice cream, freshly made at the dairy. Milk was always delivered in glass bottles, with the molded glass top holding the portion containing the cream. A special childhood delight of mine, was to help mother make whipping cream, for "special" company or occasions, using the cream from the top of the milk bottle. What childhood joy to lick the last remnants of the whipped cream from that metal bowl kept for that purpose! The following day, the milkman would pick up the "empties", or the empty milk bottles for return and re-use at the dairy, while replenishing the delivery order.

Another familiar door to door peddler comes to mind. Usually, a harbinger of the arrival of springtime was the curtain sales of one Mrs. Weinberger. I guess she was the prototype of the "working mother", long before mothers were acquainted with Womens' Liberation, or outside- of- the home- jobs. She would bring all manner of window curtains, and I distinctly recall mother always purchasing a pair or two of new, sheer, and usually yellow colored kitchen curtains. Mother believed that yellow was a "sunshiney and cheerful" accoutrements to dress up the kitchen, since that is where we would dine all the such thing as formal dining rooms in our Third Ward railroad apartments of the day. To eat in dining rooms would be associated with the wealthier folk, living in the luxurious confines of the South Ward of the city, the Weequahic Section, or at least in the Upper Clinton Hill Section of Newark.

As another sideline, Mrs. Weinberger sold what was known as womens' "house dresses", made of cotton, and always with buttoned down fronts. I recall these simple, informal and unattractive garments, having garish and paisley type prints. The dresses were designed for stay-at-home- moms, and very often grandmoms, and were suited to doing the household work of the day. Nothing fancy, just utilitarian clothing. The housedress was the typical "uniform" of most of the mothers living in the neighborhood, as I recall it. It was a very inexpensive item of clothing. Over the housedress, mothers usually wore some type of apron, since mothers were usually engaged in the preparation of nightly and delicious home prepared meals. I recall one of my very first part-time jobs in high school was working in a store on Broad Street, near and opposite City Hall, which specialized in this type of apparel, and also sold uniforms for nurses and other jobs requiring white colored work clothes.

Occasionally, an infrequent peddler arriving in the neighborhood, also with horse and wagon, was the ragman. He would go door to door, asking the ladies of the house, if they had any old discarded clothing or rags to donate, which would then be hauled off and made into bales, to be sold for so much (?) by the pound. I recall the wagon working its way down the street, the flotsam and jetsam of discarded clothing, waving in the springtime wind, as in salute to the new season, as the old horse clipped-clopped its way through the neighborhood. Today, interestingly enough, charities like Good Will, sell rags for recycling cloth, made from the dregs of merchandise, perhaps too worn, stained or undesirable for re-sale.

The last vendor coming to our neighborhood in the mid-fifties, as I recall it, was the advent of the "Avon lady" Mothers would gather in another's apartment for hours, watching the Avon Lady demonstrate the beauty products which would enhance and alter the typical "household drudge" into a veritable"Cinderella." I guess the Avon Lady was the prototype of the current makeover programs, so popular now on television.

One would know, coming home from school, the occasion of a visit from the Avon Lady. Upon entering home, one could experience the myriad and sometimes cloying aroma of the diverse perfumes and spray products proffered by the Avon representative. She was usually another neighborhood mother, one of the independent "early working brigades" of neighborhood women. The highlight of these sales demonstrations would be the gift of small samples of Avon merchandise, such as lipsticks and lotions of all kinds. And orders galore would be reaped upon the visiting Avon representative by mothers looking for a bit of glamour in their lengthy days of household toil!

Despite our modern conveniences today, the peddlers formed a vital part of the everyday business of living. The aura of friendliness and salesmanship went hand in hand back in those days. At least, it sure beat driving to go shopping at the high cost of fuel these days! And there was always something new under the sun for purchase! Those were the days!


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: