Sunday, August 30, 2015

Life with Fred & Lucy: The Curtain Man

                                                  Me and Mom
Back in the days, before Cable, Super Walmart’s and, online shopping sites, most people ordered what they needed for their homes from the ‘Curtain Man’. I’m talking about the late ’40’s and ’50’s when doctors made house visits and milk, eggs and butter were delivered to our doorstep by the Abbotts milkman.

Even our fruit and vegetables could be purchased fresh daily during summer months from a horse-drawn wagon. In South Philly, we even had a man who would show up every Friday afternoon to sharpen the neighborhood’s knives and scissors on his grinding stone pushcart. But, the person who families anticipated the most was the Curtain Man. As soon as the lanky salesman with the big brown suitcase walked up our street, housewives would grab their payment books and cash.

The Wizard

I don’t remember the Curtain Man’s name, but by the time I was three years old I had begun to associate our next door neighbor’s knocking on our front door with my mother’s running for her purse. The curtain man, always dressed in a suit, was young and wore thick glasses. It wasn’t him that made the ladies drool, but what he had in his suitcase. It wasn’t until much later, and after seeing The Wizard of Oz, that I understood the magic of that suitcase.

This man had samples of just about everything a housewife would need for her home: curtains, pots and pans, dishes, glassware and kitchen towels. My mother would order what she needed and once the product was delivered the following week by Mr. Curtain Man, my mother would make weekly payments which she’d mark down in her payment book.

The Curtain Man never complained when I would look through the suitcase, touching the curtains or lacey hankies and, he never came empty-handed for the kids. There was always a lollipop waiting for me before he left our home. Around the month of November, he would even sell a few items for Christmas: dolls, train sets, books.
                                                   Me and Dad                             

One day, my dad happened to be home when Mr. Curtain Man stopped by. My dad was a conductor on the trolley system; the old PTC system that later became Septa. My dad was making good money at the time and on the day he was home, Mr. Curtain Man had something new to sell. At that time, no one on our block owned a television set.

When Curtain Man explained the payment system, my dad was hooked and the set, ordered. It wasn’t that big of a screen, maybe 8 by 10 inches, but every Saturday night, most of the neighbors came over to watch a variety show. In 1949, there were only three stations and a handful of shows to watch. All were done live. Eventually, as the economy got better and our neighbors were making better money, they began to purchase their own sets.
As more cars filled up our empty street and as people became more mobile, my mother and the other women would head out to Gimbel's or Wanamaker’s in Center City Philadelphia and, the magical Curtain Man came to our house, less and less.


Everyone drives to the malls nowadays to do their shopping, or they order online. We buy our groceries from big mega shopping centers. Strangers at our doors are seldom welcomed with open arms. The world has grown caustic, and now, we worry that the salesman at the door might possibly be a thief or worse.  

When I tell my grandchildren that milk was delivered fresh to our door every day, they assume we kept a cow in our backyard. When I tell them about the Curtain Man and his magical suitcase, I get blank stares or sarcastic comments, “Was this during the dinosaur days?”

I’m surrounded by stand-up comedians! My grandkids look at a suitcase as nothing more than a container for their vacation clothing. But to a three year old child in 1949, the Curtain Man was a wizard and his suitcase held loads of treasure.


  1. Never heard of this. My mother remembers a man selling soup and dry goods. She called him the Soup Man. She mentioned the Fuller Brush guy, and of course, the Milk Man.

    1. I guess different sections of the city had their own name for the guys. Everyone on our street called him the curtain man, only God knows what company he represented because he sold everything.

  2. This is wonderful, Marie. I, too, love your Fred & Lucy posts. [They are less scary than the zombie posts. :/] Those were the times when people and personality mattered. My dad used to tell me about the old lady who sold rags and chavella water, some kind of cleaner. All the ladies used to flock to the streets to get clean rags and household cleaning fluid from this woman. I used phonetic spelling for chavella. She used to sing it out slowly.

    1. Thank you Victoria. I remember the chavella water, too. I think it was a type of bleach that they would use on the marble front steps.