Monday, March 3, 2014

Have Product, Will Travel: a brief discussion of the salesman by Ciara Gold

Snake Oil Salesman
"Kiss the children and sister Minnie for me. And tell her whatever she does, never to marry a traveling man, they are the most unhappy men on earth."—E. Barton Martin to his wife, Julia, April 6, 1877. (from 100 Years on the Road by Timothy B. Spears)
While the numbers were probably higher, The U.S. Census reported 7,262 traveling salesmen in 1870 and 223,732 in 1930. But what in the world did they sell?
Peddlers have a long history in the U.S. The profession was largely enjoyed by Jewish, Italian and Greek immigrants and those with a bit of gypsy in their veins. They would set up a stationary market along a well travelled route where they could sell a variety of wares from kitchen utensils to scrap paper to tonic water.  The more successful peddlers usually entertained their potential buyers with music.
Salesmen were different from peddlers in that they were employed by a company to sale or market one specific item like the sewing machine, cast iron ovens, saddles or even candy. I never gave it much thought, but the items in a trading post or store had to come from somewhere. The clerk might order from a catalogue or trade with travelers headed west, but I imagine some of the bigger items came from traveling salesmen.
File:Woman with Singer.jpgThe I.M. Singer & Company which manufactured and sold Singer Sewing machines was one company that employed salesmen. And in 1856, Edward Clark instigated the hire-purchase plan, which would lead to the concept of the layaway plan. With this plan, those with limited resources could still buy their product.
With the advent of the railroad in the 1850s, wholesalers established businesses in larger cities and became intermediaries between retailers and manufactures. Travelling salesmen would negotiate contracts with retailers.

Between the 1800s and mid 1940s, salesmen used miniatures to entice customers to buy. Some miniatures actually worked to show the potential buyer how the product functioned. A miniature used by a salesman would have the product’s name engraved in it thus distinguishing it from a toy. In a BriefHistory of Modern Miniatures by Lisa Robinson reports, “Farm equipment was a natural candidate for such samples and there are some excellent examples of working plows, reapers and other farm machinery. However, samples were produced across a wide range of industries, working typewriters that can fit in the palm of your hand, shoes, a working grist mill, a brace and bit drill set, furniture, furnaces, specimen books (also called blads), just to name a few.”
Not all salesmen were honest; some even proved to be fraudulent. I found this fun story regarding a cigar salesmen in 1890. Regardless of the salesman's disposition, they had to be glib of tongue and willing to travel. It was not a glamorous profession but one very necessary to the western expansion and development of our fine country.

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