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Portals to the past: Golden days of home delivery

Portals to the past: Golden days of home delivery

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In the early days of the previous century, home delivery was quite common in American cities, both big and small.

Most families owned just one car, maybe not even that. Public transportation was the mode for most working folks. An efficient home-delivery system developed in our towns and cities that provided many of the necessities of daily living.

The telephone was the one important link in those days, much as it is today. Dial in an order to the merchant, and it would be efficiently hand-delivered right to the front or back door.

Perhaps you remember some of these many services supplied by local merchants.


Most neighborhoods had a mama and papa store, a small, but efficient grocery store that could supply most of the food and other household needs of a family.

A detailed order list would be filled at the store, packed in a cardboard box and carried to the house or apartment by a delivery boy.


All across our country in the 1940s, there were bread companies that sent delivery trucks throughout cities. Approaching a neighborhood, the friendly driver would toot a little whistle.

The women of the neighborhood would run out and purchase from a wide assortment of baked goods. When we once visited Los Angeles, the trucks were outfitted with long, shallow drawers that held loaves of bread, cakes, doughnuts, cookies and breakfast pastries.

As those drawers were opened to reveal their treasure, I well remember the delicious aroma of all those baked goods. A kid always knew if her mother purchased a cake or a couple of loaves of bread, there might be a free cookie in the bargain.

James Jasek remembers Spud-Nuts here in Waco in the 1950s, which was located on 25th Street near Washington Avenue. It made very tasty doughnuts from potato flour. He remembers that their doughnuts were hand-delivered.

Dairy products

The milk man was an important person to every housewife. Powered by either motor or horse, his truck carried a cargo of milk, cottage cheese, butter, cream and eggs. The dairy would supply the housewife with a small cardboard sign that could be hung in the front window.

It had a little revolving arrow to indicate what dairy products were desired. Arriving quite early in the morning, the trusty milk man would let himself in the unlocked back door and set everything inside the refrigerator or the ice box.

I remember a very clever arrangement in the side wall of my aunt’s house in Southern California in the 1940s. Rather than leave the milk outside on the porch, there was a small door about 1-foot square that the milk man could open.

Inside, was a cool zinc-lined space where he could leave whatever the lady of the house had ordered. On the opposite side of the space was a second door that opened into the inside of the kitchen. If the lady of the house was away for awhile, she knew the milk would stay cold inside that special little closet.

Very cool, eh?


The ice box was a homely wooden box lined with corrugated zinc. When the top was filled with a block of ice, the interior stayed cool. The ice would

slowly melt and drip down into a shallow pan under the ice box.

This was a very uncomplicated, yet efficient form of food storage.

Several times a week, the neighborhood would be visited by the ice man. He wore a long leather apron and carried big steel ice tongs. Again, a little cardboard sign provided by the ice company would be used to signal to the ice man the household needs.

He would clamp a 5- or 10-pound block in his ice tongs and carry it into the unlocked house to install it in the ice box.

Someone who grew up back east in a big city told me that the most attractive thing about the ice truck was the horse that pulled it.

“All the kids in the neighborhood ran to see the horse. For a city kid, it was always a treat to see a real horse up close. We knew horses from cowboy movies, but this was the real thing.”

During the 1920s and 1930s, many homes had yet to install an electric refrigerator, which was considered a real luxury. I can remember when I was a kid in a Dallas suburb and the ice man would arrive in our neighborhood. Some homes needed ice and others had a refrigerator.

All of the kids would beg for a chunk of ice to gnaw on. On a real hot day, I used my ice to write on the steaming-hot sidewalk. Of course, my writing quickly evaporated.

Even into the more modern 1940s, many people used ice boxes because refrigerators were no longer being manufactured. America had gone to warand the resulting shortage sent people to the junk shops to find those sturdy little ice boxes, which could still be useful ... with the help of the ice man.

Another shortage, by the way, was the car itself. Detroit’s car factories would not produce civilian cars until after World War II. They were busy turning out jeeps, trucks, planes and tanks for the military. If you wanted a car, you might have to settle for an out-of-date Model T Ford and be happy to get it.

What with rationing of gas and a shortage of rubber tires, this was a nation that “made-do.”

Ice cream

Everyone remembers the ting-a-ling bells of the Good Humor man. A refrigerated truck filled with all sorts of wonderful ice cream treats visited neighborhoods several times a week.

I remember in Dallas when we would hear that musical alert, usually just after dinnertime. We would run to our dad and beg for a dime for an Eskimo Pie or a Popsicle.

Did you ever hear the rumor that the ice cream manufacturer secretly marked a single ice cream stick and if you discovered it, you would receive a lifetime supply of ice cream? No, I didn’t exactly believe it either, but I always checked the sticks anyway.


Whether it was a morning or evening issue, most folks subscribed to a newspaper. Before radio and television, the daily newspaper was the best source of local, national and international news.

It was delivered by a boy on a bicycle who rode from house to house tossing folded-up papers on the front lawns. At the end of the month, he would be obliged to go from house to house to collect payment.

This arduous, daily task was considered by many to be character-enhancing. Many’s the successful man who would proudly relate the fact that he began his career as a humble paper boy.

Steam laundries, dry cleaners

Every community had several laundries (some of them combined with dry cleaners) and much of their business was home delivery.

If you were on the regular route, the truck would arrive and the driver would take away all the dirty laundry bundled up in a sheet or pillowcase.

The woman of the house would have included the long printed form provided by the laundry.

She would have checked off the number of towels, the number of sheets, napkins, tablecloths, etc.

The next week, the same truck would deliver everything clean, neatly folded and ironed with starch, if requested. It would all be wrapped up in paper and tied with string.

For extra precious linens, perhaps embellished with lace, the French laundry was called in to launder, starch and hand-iron tablecloths and napkins.

Washing machines were on the market in the very early days of 20th century, but they were considered a luxury. Dryers came along in the 1940s.

Lacking such amenities, many households sent their laundry to be professionally done. As with the laundries, dry cleaners usually home-delivered. Even today, some cleaners offer the convenience of home delivery.


Florists traditionally delivered to the home, church, funeral parlor or cemetery. Florists were an important part of all sorts of family activities.

Harry Reed of Reed’s Flowers remembers that in the very early days, some florists used mule-drawn wagons to deliver. During World War II, to circumvent the gas and tire shortages, florists in Waco and other U.S. communities formed cooperatives.

Each florist would chart out a portion of the city and flowers would be delivered by truck from a central location.


The U. S. Postal Service has always offered home delivery. Today, they deliver six days a week, but long ago, mail was delivered twice a day in many parts of this country.

At one time, there were several different mailing categories such as ordinary mail, air mail or special delivery, each with its own price. Today, much of the nation’s package mail is delivered by FedEx and United Parcel Service.

Fresh produce

Many farmers would pull a wagon into the city to hawk their freshly harvested produce.

When my little family lived in a small town in the San Francisco Bay area as late as the 1960s, a farmer used to drive his truck into our neighborhood.

We women all loved the idea of produce just picked that very morning: tomatoes, corn, plums, apricots and fresh greens.

What a convenience!


In some of the eastern states, most householders burned coal in furnaces for heating their homes. A special door in the basement of a house was opened so the delivery truck could roll the requested amount of coal down a chute into a storage bin.

Drug stores

Drug stores have always been the lifesavers of a community. Long before there were today’s gigantic chain stores that sell just about everything, a drug store’s main business was medications.

Usually, a store also stocked over-the-counter drugs, cosmetics, tobacco goods, candy, magazines and newspapers, and perhaps it might have a soda fountain. But you could always count on old “Doc” to fill a prescription seven days a week, perhaps as long as 12 hours a day. Many drug stores offered home-delivery services.

If it happened to be an emergency, Doc might even deliver it himself.


Yes, many doctors of the not-too-distant past made house calls. Life was a bit simpler in those times.

I remember being ill as a child with scarlet fever. The family doctor in Dallas medicated me and counseled my concerned parents.

Another time, when my sister and I were both desperately ill with whooping cough, a real child-killer in those days, the doctor left behind a big sign for the front yard that said, “Quarantined.”

Only my father was allowed to leave the house every day to go to work. Our doctor called in an order to the local pharmacist, who hand-delivered his special cough concoction made from Coca-Cola syrup. I like to think that thick, sweet syrup saved our lives.

Department stores

As unlikely as it may seem today, department stores used to deliver. My Aunt Lillian, who managed the notions department at Goldstein-Migel’s in the 1930s, once told me that a prominent Waco woman once called in, ordering a single spool of thread to be delivered to her house in Castle Heights.Goldstein-Migel’s was happy to oblige. Many women would shop all day and after having made their choices, order everything boxed up and delivered to their residences.

Car repair

Here in Waco in the 1930s, I remember seeing a car being driven up the street with a three-wheeled motorcycle hooked to the rear of the car.

Unhooking the motorcycle from the car, the delivery man left the car, which they had repaired, and then rode the motorcycle back to the car repair shop.

Birthing babies

The ultimate in home delivery was a baby delivered at home. In every city and even in the countryside, midwives and country doctors have always been available to help a woman safely deliver her baby.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that women trusted a hospital delivery. Because doctors of those times were unaware of the importance of practicing proper hygiene, such as washing the hands between patients, childbirth deaths (both mother and baby) from puerperal fever were drastically high in hospitals.

Women felt safer delivering at home. Sometimes a doctor would be called to the home, sometimes a neighborhood midwife. In the big cities, public health nurses might fill that purpose as well.


Joyce exhibit: Art Center Waco has a new exhibit, for a $2 donation, featuring 70 artworks by popular children’s book illustrator William Joyce. The exhibit can be viewed through Feb. 20, 2014.

Regular visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday thru Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. This exhibit was organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene and was brought to you in part by the Midway Reads Program.

Gift idea: Please consider my book, “Selections from Portals to the Past.” Priced at $25, all profits go to Historic Waco Foundation. It can be purchased at the HWF office, 810 S. Fourth St. Call 753-5166. I self-published this book in 2011 and a few copies are left for sale. It contains some of my most popular “Portals to the Past“ columns over the last 13 years.


Historian Claire Masters has a passion for writing the stories of Waco’s past. She is also a supporter of many Waco organizations that seek to improve our fair city.

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