What's old is new again: Home Delivery makes a comeback
Amazon.com has revitalized fast home delivery of everything; even local grocery stores are jumping in again, this time with the Internet as the ordering medium. But is home delivery new? Not at all…
If you were a housewife in the early part of the 20th Century, you were very dependent on household deliveries. Raising a family of many children, cooking meals from a woodstove, washing clothes by hand, and ensuring other household chores were done, was an all day job, if an unpaid and possibly an underappreciated one.
With very little spare time during the day to devote to shopping for food and household products, the deliveryman played an important role.
From the delivery of the morning newspaper to an armful of groceries from the market down the street, a deliveryman was a must. It was a time when she waited the mailman, the iceman (for her icebox, before electric refrigerators made their debut), the laundry driver and, of course, the milkman.
Those who grew up in the 1960's or later were generally unable to experience a visit from a milkman. If you wanted a gallon of milk, a quart of ice cream, or a tub of cottage cheese, you drove down to the supermarket or a chain convenience store and bought what you wanted. Whatever we knew about milkmen we learned from old black and white movies: A man with a white starched shirt and wearing a hat delivered bottled milk to your front porch! Or we might have seen a picture of a milkman in the Sunday newspaper comics, or heard about him from our grandparents recalling the good old days.
During the early years, milk products came from a dairy, or a farm in the country, and few people who lived in the city owned a car to drive for a quart of milk. And if they did have a motor vehicle, they didn't have the time for what could have been a long drive over dirt roads into the country to get milk. Dairy farmers wisely decided if the people couldn't come to the dairy, the dairy would have to come to them. The days of home milk delivery began.
Over a century ago, dairy products were delivered to homes by horse and wagon. And many living on the milk route had a small insulated box placed near the front door for the milkman to leave his fresh bottled milk. Some homes even had a special cubbyhole built into the side of the house where a couple of quarts could be placed out of the sun. The empty bottles were left on the porch and whisked away, and a bill was left for the customer. Some residents placed a special order for other dairy products in the milk box with the empty bottles, or left a payment for the next day when the milkman returned.
When that idea caught on, grocery stores and markets also began home deliveries.
Bob Welch and Oliver Applegate established one of the first delivery services in Sellwood shortly after the turn of the 20th Century. Welch owned a stable and a small grocery along 17th Avenue just south of Tacoma Street. Welch and Applegate hired young boys and their own relatives to ride horseback through the streets taking orders from potential customers.
They returned to the Welch Store after noon, loaded all of the requested supplies and food into a wagon, and delivered it all to customers before sundown. Drivers for Welch Grocery eventually ventured as far as Woodstock and even into the Lents community filling orders, along rough and winding roads that took young drivers hours to reach by horse and wagon.
By the time of World War II in the 1940s, residents of Inner Southeast could afford their own motor vehicles, and they wanted the freedom to shop various stores to compare prices and products. Milkmen slowly began to disappear, and the rattle of glass bottles and idling trucks were no longer heard outside of your house during the early morning hours.
Geri Griffith worked as a delivery clerk for his parents at the ByBee Avenue Grocery at the corner of S.E. Milwaukie at ByBee. Customers would call in their orders by phone, and in the afternoon Geri or his brother would load desired products into the truck and deliver them right to customers' homes. It wasn't uncommon in those more trusting days for a delivery boy, like Geri, to enter an unlocked house, place the perishables into a client's refrigerator, and set the rest of the groceries on their kitchen table – along with a bill.
On one such visit in Eastmoreland, Geri was asked by the man of the house to come upstairs for a moment. To Geri's surprise, this special customer was Humphrey Bogart, along with his wife at the time, Mayo Methot. Bogie wanted Geri to hop down to the local liquor store and pick up a couple bottles of spirits. The famous movie star flipped Geri a twenty dollar bill and told him to keep the change.
In 1890 oil lamps were used for lighting, and woodstoves were the major means of heating as well as cooking. Since refrigerators in the home wouldn't be universal until 1940, as mentioned earlier, almost everyone had an ice box in which to store their perishables – and most households kept their ice box in the kitchen or on the front porch.
Blocks of ice were needed to keep the contents of an ice box cold, and it was the iceman who delivered the needed 50 pounds of ice to your front door. Ice was delivered on a regular basis, because of course the ice melted – and during the summer months, the ice company might get a call every other day.
When the ice truck arrived it was sure to draw a crowd of youngsters. Young children were entertained as they watched the husky deliveryman unload a heavy block of ice with large tongs and carry the shiny block of ice into their parents' or a neighbor's house. The hatch that was usually on top of the ice box was opened, and the block was carefully slid into the slot. On his return to the truck, children huddled around the ice deliveryman waiting for the chance to dip their hands into the cool freezer for a sliver of ice that they could suck on during sweltering weather.
Alfred Leihammer operated the Sellwood Ice Company out of the old Mt. Hood Brewery – situated by the railroad tracks on Marion Street – where kegs of beer were shipped out by rail to a bottling factory near the Hawthorne Bridge. Prohibition in 1914 closed down the brewery, and Alfred took advantage of the empty walk-in freezers in the complex – using them to store blocks of ice.
Once a call came in for another order of ice, the truck was loaded up and the iceman was on his way to another delivery. The freezer units also provided storage for seafood, when the Oregon Cold Fish Storage Company began occupying the building.
As a young man, John Rekart earned extra income as an errand boy at Caldwell's Grocery Store. Caldwell's had an ice box in their store that needed to be constantly filled. To save money on ice delivery, the proprietor sent John over to the Sellwood Ice Company to pick up a few blocks of ice. With bicycle in tow, Reghart would load a 25 or 30 pound block of ice wrapped in a burlap sack and hustle the ice back twenty blocks to the store before it melted.
Woodstoves then were still the main source of heating and way of cooking in Sellwood, and to order a cord of wood delivered to your residence, you called the Eastside Lumber Mill. John P. Miller, who established the lumber mill, provided work for many of the men living on the east side of the river, and most of the wood used in the construction of Portland homes of that time came from the Eastside Mill. The mill's logs came by train, some shipped right from the forest in the coast range. Large rafts of logs were guided by tug boats and chained to pilings along the Willamette River to await later use (such log islands were still seen in the Willamette River as late as the 1970's).
Sawyers at the Eastside Lumber Mill cut the timbers into screen doors, windows, moulding, house trim, scowl work, and anything needed for constructing a home. Any slabs of wood left over from production were sold to customers as fuel for their woodstoves. Odds and ends of wood were hauled up Spokane Street by a special truck, and cords of wood would be dumped on the sidewalk for customers to haul into their basement for storage. Often unemployed men who needed extra cash or young boys were hired to stack such wood beside a house or in some other storage area.
Joseph Meindl was an early wood dealer, hauling coal and wood to Sellwood and Inner Southeast households from his storage shed along 17th Avenue. For years he kept students warm at the Sellwood Grade School by delivering coal to stoke the fires of the furnace boiler. Coal was such a hot burning substance that the school discontinued using the fuel after a few fires broke out along the roof of the school, from the heat coming up the chimney stacks.
When they were first introduced, electric washing machines were not widely affordable for working class people. The Peerless Laundry Company offered free pickup and delivery for clothes to be washed and cleaned. Jay "Doc" Dannell opened the neighborhood laundry company in 1923, and housewives could bundle up to thirty pieces of dirty clothes and rags into a large cloth bag for a driver to pick up. The drivers would then drop the laundry at the facility at the corner of 13th and Tacoma, where a staff of thirty young ladies would wash and dry the load. It then was returned back to the customer, ready to use. The Peerless Laundry saved the lady of the house many of hours of tiring and time-consuming work for the price of only one dollar.
Dannell purchased fifteen Ford Model-T delivery trucks to reach much of the city. Men who hired on as drivers were also expected to act as salesmen, knocking on neighbor doors to offer laundry service from the Peerless Company.
And home delivery went further than that. When days got warmer each year, people spent more time outdoors, and this is when a red wagon with yellow trim called the "popcorn wagon" would make its rounds around Inner Southeast. Patrons could watch through glass panels the yellow kernels of corn boil over the popper and turn into a puffy white popcorn, flavored with salt or sugar. For only a nickel you could buy a bag of this delicious buttery treat – or, if you wanted, order a bag of roasted peanuts while watching a baseball game at Sellwood Park.
But wait – there's more. At least once a week the fish wagon would visit the neighborhood, and ladies rushed to arrive first at the truck and choose the freshest fish for the evening meal.
And, of course, home delivery never really stopped for the Good Humor Man – you don't have to be an old timer to remember hearing the simple tunes repeating as the ice cream truck slowly moved down your street in the summertime. Those familiar tunes have the power stop kids in their tracks and send them scampering into the house for money for ice cream before the ice cream truck disappeared down another block.
Advertised as a company that moved furniture and pianos, or provided an auto excursion to Mt. Hood or the beach, the Sellwood Transfer Company was also in the delivery business a century ago. As owner of the company, William Copenhafer directed many services out of his storage garages on Umatilla street. You could buy gasoline for your auto, rent a vehicle, or order a cord of wood or coal to be delivered to your house for chilly Northwest winters. Lime was delivered to households that still used an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing.
For years in those days, Italian vendors roamed the streets with wagonloads of ripe vegetables and fresh fruits in the summertime. Late in the morning, street vendors from around the outskirts of Southeast Portland drove their horse drawn-wagons across bridges to the fruit market on Yamhill Street, where farmers and produce salesmen had set up stalls selling their freshly harvested crops to the highest bidder.
Vendors would spend time squeezing and tapping the assortment of vegetables and fruits, sorting out the produce that they knew their customers would buy. Some could also be dropped off at a fruit stand, or sold from an open storefront in town. Then, in the afternoon, you could hear the calls of the vendors as they meandered down your residential street shouting, "Fresh spinach, fresh spinach today, get your cucumbers, cucumbers on sale right here."
These Italians in the Northwest came primarily from Sicily, and the Providence of Tuscany; a smaller fraction of men from the Naples region. Fleeing from religious persecution in their own country or a lifetime of servitude, they had little chance of owning their own farmland in Italy. Oregon and other parts of the country offered immigrants an opportunity to own their own property, and from their homeland they brought their experience in raising crops. Second and third generations followed in the footsteps of their parents, eventually replacing the horses and wagons their parents had been using with a motorized delivery truck that was faster and more convenient.
Some of these families earned enough money to operate their own fruit and vegetable stands, they and went on to serve residents and customers for the next thirty to forty years. The Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood north of Powell Boulevard and parts of Brooklyn contained large sections of Italian families at that time.
As we pointed out at the start of this narrative, home delivery today is starting to make a concentrated comeback. Groceries and milk may once again be ordered – this time, online – from your computer or smart phone. The newspaper, mail, and sometimes dry cleaning service and the products of the summertime ice cream truck are all available right at your house.
And, in a throwback to a century ago, residents of some sections of Sellwood, Westmoreland, and Brooklyn may once again be hearing shouts of, "Tamales, get your warm delicious tamales" – as a Latino vendor strolls the residential streets with his family and a pushcart of fresh tamales, sometimes with small dogs following along behind.