When I was in high school, all the really cool girls would go to the big city to buy their clothes at the mall. My mom ordered mine through the mail order catalog. While I’ll admit it was easy to daydream as you flip through the pages of catalogs, it wasn’t quite the same as seeing all the dresses in person.
Even so, it would be a very exciting day when the package arrived in the mailbox – because you knew these new clothes would surely come with a bit of the model’s charm. Yet when the new outfit arrived, it unfortunately didn’t look the same on me as it did in the catalog. It didn’t sound so glamorous… (swallowing) or was it me?
In recent years, you could say that I have finally arrived as my visits to malls have become more frequent. There are a few advantages to this convenient shopping. If a new outfit isn’t right for you, put it back on the rack — right away. Sometimes there are items that are acceptable; but mostly no, mirrors don’t lie. If my farmer who shops with me doesn’t like something, all he has to do is say, “That makes you look old and/or fat.” At that point, all speed records are broken when returning to the locker room to quickly get rid of the offending item of clothing.
But wouldn’t you know, now that I’ve made it, the really cool girls I graduated with probably order from the modern mail-order system: online stores.
Yes, I have to laugh a little here. This home shopping is nothing new under the sun. People have been doing it for quite some time…centuries, in fact.
Why, when I was growing up in the previous century, there was the Watkins man, the Rawleigh man, and the Schwan’s Ice Cream man. It was a real treat to have the latest addition – especially during the summer. Ice cream bars, orange sorbet popups and vanilla ice cream for our pop floats. (I have to say pop, as my siblings were quite adventurous, we didn’t just stick with root beer. Almost any flavor of pop would do.) Despite all that yum, the man from Schwan n wasn’t necessarily the favorite though.
Lady Avon was. She was special, but rarely called unless it was to visit. Because our lady Avon was my grandmother Louise Reemtsma.
Many of these farm-to-farm businesses started in the days of horses and buggies. The WT Rawleigh Company was started in 1889 by a man whose education was only rural schools. William Thomas Rawleigh was born on a farm in Wisconsin.
The idea of owning his own business developed from an early age. While still young, he convinced his father to let him work for someone else for $20 a month. After several months, his wealth stood at $120. He gave his parents $100 of that amount.
At that point he left the farm to pursue a career as a freelance salesman with a horse borrowed from his father, who was not too fond of the notion of his son. Even though he still had $15 to his name, it wasn’t really his. The buggy he filled with four kinds of “good health products” was mortgaged, so basically he didn’t have a penny to his credit. He was all 18 years old. At that time, he was not even old enough to vote.
Today, Rawleighs still delivers items to customers’ homes via their website. I hope there was a written biography of his life, as it will probably be an interesting read.
It is quite possible that Mr. Rawleigh’s business idea came about because their farm was allegedly visited by a salesman from the Watkins Incorporated Company. This business started around the time of Rawleigh’s birth. Although born and educated in Ohio, Joseph Ray Watkins moved at the age of 21 to Stearns County, Minnesota with his parents Benjamin and Sophronia Watkins.
After his marriage to Mary Ellen Herberling of Ohio, he and his wife settled in Plainview, Minnesota. The obliging wife let him experiment in the kitchen developing a liniment that was used to soothe sore muscles. Once successful, he started the JR Watkins Medical Company and took to the streets, knocking on doors to earn a living.
As this husband and wife business grew, the special sales buggy made for him in St. Cloud, Minnesota grew into a fleet of buggies scattered throughout the region. The business was transferred to Winona, Minn. (You know, I think it’s time to plan a road trip because Plainview and Winona both have historic sites and museums with Watkins history.)
This liniment that got Watkins started is still in use today. Watkins products can be purchased in stores or online.
Wisconsin and Minnesota can be proud of these two men and Schwans. But what about Iowa? Well, several people recently told me about Jewel Tea. This one is new to me, but it would definitely have been a favorite. Hot tea is my favorite drink.
The Jewel Tea Company was founded by the son of an Iowa grocer. Frank Skiff called his business Jewel Tea because anything superior at the time was called a “jewel”. In Chicago, with $700 in his pocket, Skiff took his horse and wagon and went door to door with baking powder he made, teas he packaged, spices and extracts. He roasts coffee beans once a week to sell on his way.
The company has partnered with Hall China to make tableware just for them. His “Autumn Leaf” design was popular. Although this company is no longer in operation, it will not be lost to history as there are collectors out there who seek out Jewel Tea items.
Something as simple as vanilla flavoring has helped these door-to-door sellers. I don’t know if it was because vanilla had to be one of the most demanding items for cooks, or if it was because the vanilla industry was manipulated. It is also a difficult crop to grow, which contributes to its availability.
Rawleigh also spent considerable sums to obtain vanilla for its customers. In 1924, the company began refining vanilla in Mexico, the West Indies and France. He bought plantations in Madagascar. It hasn’t completely succeeded in solving the vanilla problem thoroughly, as there still seems to be a monopoly.
All of these businesses sold similar items that busy housewives would need. I suspect very few farms were without the ointments sold by both Rawleigh and Watkins. Rawleigh had a much needed fly killer in the barn. I always prefer Watkin’s black pepper and their real vanilla in my whipped cream.
Even though these businesses originated in the 1800s, they were by no means the beginning of home and road sales. Grocery stores have been doing this for a while.
The grocery store in Newkirk, Iowa (like many other grocery stores) ran a walking cart across the country because farmers were just too busy to head into town to buy the few items they couldn’t. not cultivate themselves. This delivery route was continued by many subsequent owners of the store. There are days when we are also too busy to go into town; so that I can see how farm families have benefited from this service.
As the old becomes fashionable again, wouldn’t it be great if families started going to church again. My farmer and I were watching a 1940s/1950s movie produced by Hollywood. The film opened with a bird’s eye view of the city and the main character speaking. ” It’s my city. It’s Sunday morning and almost everyone is on their way to church. Because we all need that reminder of Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Renae B. Vander Schaaf is a freelance writer, author, and speaker. Contact her at (605) 530-0017 or email@example.com.