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Milk (and Iron)


Some weeks ago you might have read the story of “Kropotkin, the Knife Man,” Agincourt’s itinerant sharpener of knives and blades. While no Russian of my acquaintance has ever served in such a capacity, there was a man who did twice each year in Bedford Park, the Chicago suburb of my birth and youth.


The week before his arrival, a card appeared in the mailbox specifying the day when the sharpener’s flat-bed truck would be moored on West 65th Place, often in the middle of the block near my grandmother’s house. For several hours he attended to the neighborhood metal: knives, shears, saws, lawnmowers (of the push variety), ice skates, etc.–cash and carry, no sales tax. We were frequent patrons, with me acting as the family’s agent. But our knifeman wasn’t the only front-door service we enjoyed.

Anyone older than fifty will recall several services that came to your doorstep. The Watkins company brought us spices and liquid flavorings; Fuller sold brushes and household cleaning supplies. And in addition to knife sharpening, there were weekly deliveries of bakery goods and dairy products; I’d been born too late for home delivery of ice. During summer months, there was also the regular appearance of the Good Humor Man. Today’s Schwann truck is the only counterpart I know.

Even our homes were designed to accommodate. Next to the side door and its stair landing (four steps up to the kitchen, eight down to the basement) was the “milk window” with its inner and outer doors; latches on the inside of each kept the house secure. Twice each week the milkman opened the outer door and left what had been requested on a printed order slip (milk, cream, cottage cheese, sour cream, etc), which remained cool in its shallow chamber until brought up to the fridge. 

Besides Kropotkin, I know that other services must have come to Agincourt’s doors. Traveling salesmen, to be sure, and a milkman absolutely. There are stories here and architecture–a bakery and a creamery, at least–yet to be explored. Other nominations are gratefully accepted.

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