Saturday, July 4, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #6: Deliver Me Almost Everything


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

12. Delivery Men

In our neighborhood in the early 1920s, the local distribution of goods was still predominantly by delivery men and their horses. Supermarkets and shopping malls lay far in the future. Small neighborhood grocery and other shops were abundant, but to many the most convenient way to shop for specialties was to have them brought to the door.

The Ice Man Visiteth

Everyone needed ice in the summer, because mechanical refrigeration was in its infancy. So the ice man with his one-horse wagon traveled the streets of his route, looking at each house for the sign that would request delivery. These signs, about a foot square, were of cardboard, bearing in large, clear letters the name of the ice company which had distributed them, People's or Rice's or whomever's. Each sign was so printed that a number appeared at each corner in such a way that the device could be hung in a window diamond-wise, and the desired number, indicating the size of the ice block wanted, would appear upright, reading either 10, 25, 50, or 100. On spotting the sign, the ice man would stop his horse, go to the rear of his wagon, chip from a 100 pound scored block the weight of ice indicated at the upper corner of the sign. This chunk he would carry, using his ice tongs and resting it on a thick pad worn on his shoulder, to the customer's ice box, usually in the kitchen.


If we boys happened to be up and out early in the morning, we might see the milkman and his horse at work. The man had an established route which he covered each day. Our parents told us how, not many years earlier, the milk wagon carried large cans of milk in bulk. The route was worked later in the morning hours, when people in the houses were up and about. As the milkman drove slowly along, he would make his approach known by clanging a bell and calling out, "Milkman!" Then the housewife, or a child she might send, would go to the wagon with a bucket or a jar.

The man would dip into a can with a long-handled measure and pour the milk into the customer's receptacle, often along with a stray fly or two. Payment was by cash on the spot.

By the time we boys came along the system had been much refined. In the establishment of a route or the addition of a new family to the neighborhood, the milkman would call at the house to sell strips of tickets, one of one color for quarts, another for pints of milk bottled at the dairy he represented. He would also leave a price list, showing, with prices, the various specialties he carried in his wagon, such as cream or buttermilk or cottage cheese. With this information at hand, the customer would, before going to bed, put out on the porch the washed bottles from previous delivery, together with the number of tickets indicating how many quarts or pints of milk were wanted at the next morning's delivery. If specialty items were wanted, a note and payment in coin would be tucked into an empty bottle, or under one.

"The horse knew just how far to plod...

In most cases the milkman came to know quite well what the customers along the route would want each day. He was carrying two delivery baskets, of metal frame and compartment construction to accommodate a dozen bottles. As his carriers provided stock for deliveries, they also made a place to carry back to the wagon the empties he would pick up. By using the carriers that way, he could walk along in front of several houses, filling orders, before he had to make another trip to the wagon. It did not take a good delivery horse long to learn to know the route as well as the driver did. Once set into motion, the horse knew just about how far to plod along before stopping again. This was a great saving of labor for the milkman. When he needed a refill, the wagon was there, and the only times he would have to double back was when a customer ordered specialties.

It was a pleasure to watch that close teamwork between horse and man. Before we moved from Cannon Street, trucks had generally replaced horses on the milk routes. It was one of the sadder marks of progress; trucks did not have to be fed, nor their stables cleaned. Early in the transition period we were amused to see the milkman with his carriers of empty bottles walk to the curb, look about in surprise for his wagon, and then express himself in very positive expletives as he walked back to the stupid truck, standing right where he had left it.


The breadman, working from his wagon with his large basket containing not only bread but also cakes and doughnuts and other delicacies, also had a fairly well established route. He too walked from house to house, his horse following along the street. But baked goods were not the regular staple that milk was, so there was less precision in the operation. In fact, he just didn't bother stopping at our house; Mama did the baking there.

Vegetable Man

Of all the regular route men, the vegetable man was the most conspicuous. As he walked along beside his wagon he sang out in a loud and rhythmic chant his specials of the day, such as, "STRAWWWBERRIES, CUUUCUMBERS, RAAADISHES", and similar cries for bananas and lettuce and potatoes and tomatoes and other standard items of produce. As he called his loud sing-song housewives along the street would hear him, and by the time he was before their houses they would be at curbside waiting for him, basket and purse in hand. Milk and ice they would accept as delivered; the produce, however, they wanted to select for themselves.

"The Broken Man Is Coming!"

I remember quite well the vegetable man who worked our street for several years. Mama would now and then want to be sure she knew when the man was on our street. She might be working upstairs or in the kitchen and not hear him call. So on such days, when we boys might be playing outside, she would admonish us to let her know when he was coming. It just happened that the vegetable man had only one leg, and he swung along as best he could, his crutch under his right arm and his left hand resting on the wagon. We boys, in the innocence of childhood and without thought of any unkindness, would run to the door and call to our mother, "Mama, the broken man is coming!"

Coal Shooting

The coal man's deliveries were something special to watch. Dad seldom ordered more than a half ton at a time. Our coal bin was in the cellar, accessible from outside only by a low, ground-level window that was hinged to be swung inward and upward and held open by a hook. The coal was delivered by a low-slung wagon in spring and fall, and by a box sleigh when the streets were coated with a thick, hard-packed layer of snow in winter. There was not room for the coal man to get his rig between our house and the house next door, so the man halted his wagon at curbside, then carried to the cellar window a straight metal chute which he lowered through the opened window and secured in place by legs extending to the ground from the chute's upper end. Then he would go back to the load, place his carrying bag on the ground or the snow beside it, and shovel it full of coal. The carrier was of canvas and shaped like a pack basket. A cloth strap-handle was attached to the rim at the top, and another on the side near the bottom of the pack. I don't know just what the weight of that carrier filled with coal would have been, but it must have been at least 50 pounds. When he had filled it, the man took hold of the pack with a handle in each hand and, with a swift, deft motion, swing it up onto his shoulder. Then he would trudge to the chute and just as deftly dump it onto that device, down which the coal would rattle and bang as it slid down into the bin.

The noise induced by the coal's descent was a roar which reverberated all through the house. For the usual half-ton delivery that would mean at least 20 carries for the man; for the occasional full ton order, 40 trips. He was a short, stocky man, clothes and hands and face black with coal dust, but cheerful and friendly with us kids, and often flashing a wide smile that showed his teeth startling white in contrast to his blackened face.

Instant Messaging, 1920's Style

Deliveries of quite another sort were handled by an elite group of uniformed older boys and young men. These were the telegraph couriers. The telephone was not then the universally-owned instrument it is today. Especially urgent messages were dispatched and delivered by telegraphic wire services. Two major companies competed for this business: Western Union and Postal Telegraph. Both of these companies maintained service offices in virtually all cities throughout the country. At those offices, messages received from a distant station on their lines were printed out on tape as they arrived over the wire. Clerks would cut the tapes into appropriate length strips and stick them to sheets of paper bearing their company's letterhead, together with the address of the recipient and the point of origin, with the names of both parties, sender and addressee. Each message was stuffed into an envelope, address showing in the glassine window. Such messages were held at the receiving office for only a short time, usually just long enough to allow accumulation of telegrams for several addresses in a given section of the city.

Posted at the ready in the office would be a number of carriers, just waiting to be handed a sheaf of envelopes to be distributed in their assigned districts. Each had his own bicycle, and immediately upon receipt of his messages, placed them in his cap, ran to his bike, mounted, and sped away. The courier had to be thoroughly familiar with all streets in his district, even more so than taxi drivers. The cab driver could often get help from the passenger in finding his destination. All the courier had was the printed address.

A job as a telegraph messenger was a responsible and respected position. Telegrams were not generally dispatched for casual messages -- they were usually urgent and of a serious nature. In his effort to make the earliest possible deliveries, the courier was especially vulnerable to the risks of bicycling through heavy traffic. When snow made that means of delivery impossiple, he had to travel as far as possible by streetcar and run the rest of the way. Those hard working, dedicated couriers have by now disappeared from the scene, displaced by much more sophisticated, computerized transmission systems. We are the richer for bhe inv~ptionof those mechanical devices, but the poorer for the disappearance of the couriers.

The Coal Delivery Sleigh Ride

Early one memorable Saturday morning in the depth of winter, when the coal man had finished a delivery to our house, he told us boys that he was going back to the yard to get a big load to deliver to the boiler room at the Netherland Dairy, located about a mile toward downtown from our house. He said we could come along if we wanted a nice sleigh ride. We were overjoyed at the prospect, and ran into the house to tell Mama we were going for a ride with the coal man. We offered no particulars, and she probably assumed he was going to give us a ride to the coal yard, not far up East Brighton Avenue. Then out we dashed to climb into the sleigh, and we were off.

At the coal yard, loading up was quickly accomplished. The storage bins were overhead, and the teamster (after telling us to hop out and wait for him by the street) simply drove his team to the proper spot where the sleigh rested under the hopper from which the measured quantity of coal was dumped straight down into it. As the team pulled out into the street we climbed aboard and settled down in comfort to enjoy our princely ride all the way along the busy streets which led us to the Netherland Dairy. Unloading there was easier than at our house, even though the load was much larger. All the man did was drive the sleigh up beside .~ pair of big iron doors, flush with the ground. The fireman in the boiler room swung those doors up and open, the driver removed one section of the side of the his sleigh, and proceeded 'to shove the coal off and down into a large storage chamber which the iron doors had concealed. When the fireman saw us boys standing beside the sleigh he asked, "Are you kids with him?" We said we were, and he said, "You'd better come with me, or you'll freeze before he gets that coal off."

We followed with alacrity as he led us into the boiler room, a warm and pleasant place where we sat on a bench and watched him rake and poke around in the fire. After a little bit he disappeared for a few minutes and returned with three Eskimo Pies, one for each of us. Those foil-wrapped, chocolate coated ice cream bars were the most wonderful treat we could imagine, and our pleasure in them was diminished not in the least by the grime on our fingers.

Then the coal was unloaded, and it was time to go. This time we traveled seated on the edge of the sleigh box, with our feet and legs inside. Few winter diversions are more fun than a sleigh ride, and we felt quite important, riding there in state as the team plodded south along Salina Street. At Colvin the man stopped the horses and we got off, with many thanks for the ride. He said we were ~ery welcome, and that well could join him again mos t any Saturday, as tha twas a regular run. We knew, as we walked home, that we were quite dirty. Just how dirty we were hadn't really sunk in until we entered the kitchen at home, and Mama explained it to us in no uncertain terms. Needless to say, we didn't take any more Saturday afternoon rides on the coal sleigh.


Next week: more from Arthur G. Harrington


1 comment:

  1. "The Broken Man Is Coming!"

    The title and circumstances sound like the makings of a Stephen King short story.

    "teamsters", "team of horses"

    Never put them together until now.