Just more than 210 years ago during his remarkable 21-year tenure as president of Yale, Timothy Dwight wrote a book about his many travels throughout the northeastern U.S. Dwight offered some insights on what kept his fellow Americans in this part of the country amused in their leisure time. The first pursuit Dwight listed was “visiting,” a highly developed and popular pastime at the time he wrote.
The type of visiting Dwight identified would remain a staple of our social life until just a couple of generations or so ago. For it is still within the memory of many that the art of visitation and the art of storytelling and conversation were far more enhanced. But as the years went by, the “visiting” was increasingly supplemented by a barrage of other people. For by then, Americans could also begin to count on a parade of salespeople hawking everything from cookies to encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners to cosmetics.
“It seemed like the front doorbell was ringing all the time,” historian Richard Mallett, then 95, recalled for this columnist some 14 years ago. Those who ventured onto the Mallett family’s and other doorsteps in the 1920s were, of course, often about as welcome as today’s solicitors. (Of course, the Mallett household in Farmington may have been more of a target than most, being one of about 16 octagon homes in New England.)
Another sage observer, former state Sen. Ralph Leavitt, once recalled for this columnist that, in the 1920s and 1930s, hardly a day would go by without a beggar appearing at his doorstep in Portland’s suburban Stroudwater neighborhood.
The doorstep solicitor was thus long regarded as an unwelcome intrusion. At the same time, Dwight wrote, for example, the British poet Samuel Coleridge blamed the unexpected knock on the door from a Porlock businessman for causing him to permanently forget the most triumphant portion of “Kubla Khan.”
The modern day visitor most likely to be seen in the next few weeks between now and early November is a different species than the ones who darkened either Dwight or Coleridge’s doorsteps.
It’s the political solicitor.
Despite the popularity of social visiting in early America, a political candidate trekking from door to door was not a mode of winning favor with the electorate. The voters in local and state elections would be more likely than today to have already met candidates in other settings. With membership in churches and such organizations as the Grange, Masons and Odd Fellows, and attendance at other community functions quite pervasive, a voter would already have met the candidate in a mutually voluntary, if not socially bonding, encounter. Chairs pulled up around the cracker barrels and woodstoves in neighborhood general stores were another common venue for interaction with voters.
A voter in early America might regard a candidate — especially one he or she had never met — knocking on the door seeking votes in the same manner as a young person in that era might regard a stranger approaching him or her for a date — a case of attempted familiarity without pre-existing personal recognition and respect.
Moreover, even with the dawn of the 20th century as candidates became more assertive in seeking votes, doorsteps were so cluttered with commercial and charitable solicitations that it was more difficult for political candidates to achieve a breakthrough. To be sure, a candidate might well call upon his relatives, friends and acquaintances seeking support but soliciting the votes of strangers by a comprehensive door-to-door canvas of all households was still not an ordinary means of campaigning some 100 years ago.
By the 1930s and 1940s, however, attitudes began to change and the notion of visiting all households in a voting precinct was winning some acceptance. Its effectiveness was another matter. Households were still overwhelmed with unsolicited visitors. The fact that a political candidate might only be currying a vote rather than customer dollars wouldn’t dull the fatigue, if not irritation, some households no doubt experienced.
Then, almost overnight, practitioners of door-to-door political campaigning — perhaps without many of them ever realizing it — were delivered a shot in the arm. This was the enactment of laws in many states, including Maine, that put the kibosh on nearly all doorstep solicitations. A few limited exceptions were allowed, however. These included religious, political and certain charitable solicitations that were allowed to continue under the new law.
Note June 28, 1974, as the date in Maine when this happened. On that day, the law took effect that prohibited nearly all home-solicited sales unless the customer was given a three-day right to cancel the deal. Because the law did not apply to sales that occurred in stores, the door-to-door salesperson seemed to vanish almost overnight. Avon cosmetics, Fuller brushes and Saladmaster dishware were among the products that would have to be hawked by other means.
Though this legal change was enacted in response to legitimate concerns about the lack of accountability of the here-today-gone-tomorrow vendor, the advantage it conferred upon political candidates is that they no longer had to share a household’s limited tolerance and attention span with the itinerant salesperson.
It’s a reason why in the ensuing days Maine households will be host to an ever increasing number of candidates and their surrogates, not to mention proponents or opponents of the referendums underway now.
Talk to Maine local and legislative candidates these days and one finds that the typical reaction of most households to their dooryard calls is usually polite and often congenial. A reason for all this is that the typical homeowner — besieged as he or she might be by phone calls, social media and postal solicitations — finds the more personal and authentic context of a face-to-face encounter an unusual and therefore more welcome experience.
The art of “visiting” has thus renewed its claim to one of our pastimes, though in a way not anticipated when it was celebrated by Dwight some two centuries ago.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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