Historically Speaking: The Watkins Man
Updated Wed., 5/16 – How well I remember the periodic visit by our Watkins Man. He came to our house once a month in the summertime, and a couple of times only in the fall and winter. He had a big bag full of samples, which he spread out individually on the kitchen table.
I don’t recall all the items my mother bought from him, but I do remember there was always a bottle of Watkins vanilla on the cupboard shelf; and I remember a cough syrup, which was a must for winter colds and coughs. We had quite a few coughs and colds because the houses in past days were not usually insulated; although generally we were very healthy.
I can still smell the cough syrup-it was not pleasant to take (like the flavored ones on sale today) but it kept us going through the long, cold winter months. Liniment for my father’s back was a necessity, too, since he suffered from lumbago (not called rheumatism.) There were special items he brought to show us at holiday time, but my mother usually only ordered those things that were really necessary.
Our Watkins Man was Hollis Thayer, a friend and neighbor. Every so often he would take a few of his customers with him when he made his trip to Winona, Minn., for supplies at the Watkins headquarters. It was a free trip, and many of his customers were glad to be asked to go along, although we never did go because we couldn’t leave the foxes for any period of time. Those who did go came home with many samples of Watkins products. Since our family and his family were good friends, we were always given extra samples when he made his visits.
The Watkins Company was founded by J.R. Watkins in the 1880s, and was headquartered in Winona, Minn. The large home that the Watkins family first lived in was later made into a nursing home, but I understand that the Watkins products are still sold house-to-house, and housewives are still using the Watkins spices and household products.
We always enjoyed Hollis Thayer’s visits with his bag of supplies, and we hoped we would be home from school while he showed his wares. Since we didn’t have a lot of traffic on our road, in order to keep track of what went on at home, we would, with the toe of our shoes, draw a line in the sand across the road in the morning, and then when we walked home from school, we would seriously consider the tracks, or lack of them, and hope that whoever was visiting was, still there. Country kids didn’t have a lot of events to keep track of, and the above might sound trivial to some, but to us, it was “big time” when the Watkins Man came to our house.
Hollis was my father’s hunting and fishing partner, so he was always doubly welcome at our home, and his visit usually resulted (especially if my father happened to be home) in arranging for a hunting and/or fishing expedition that weekend. In addition, he would get his order from my mother for necessities.
As I have talked with people about the Watkins Man and his products, I have to conclude that Watkins was a very solid household name, and was well known for their baking supplies, and also for many home-remedy medications. I can still smell the mentholatum (like Vick’s) that my mother used on us for colds (I’ve already expounded on the cough syrup that we had to swallow in the winter), and others have mentioned many of Watkins’ medications that they used year in and out. I am not sure if the Watkins products were sold in cities, but I presume they were, as it was a well-known and reliable company.
One special memory which causes me to chuckle, and perhaps blush, is the memory of a visit by Hollis to our home one day. I was playing in the yard when he drove up, and I sauntered over to his car as he removed his large bag of samples. Of course, his business was to get in mother’s kitchen and get on to another customer, so he dismissed me for the time being with a “Hello there.” I must confess I thought he said “Hello dear,” and that pleased me very much, as I was just a little country kid. Finally I realized what he had said, and being a dear family friend, this was his greeting to one and all. But it did brighten many a day for me, as I realized that he and his family were dear friends of ours, and I returned his greeting each time with “Hello Mr. Watkins Man.”
Later in my life, living in the city, I had a “Monday Man” call on me for purchasing home products. He too had a wide variety of cooking supplies and other products. I’m sure many of you readers remember these door-to-door salesmen, such as Watkins, Monday and perhaps other household products, too. Nowadays we run to the large supermarkets, or even use the computer to get our needed household supplies. The memories of the famous Watkins Man are history, but very pleasant.