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Even the Best Cannot Always Sell: Direct Sales in 1889

This post was written by Business Reference librarian Natalie Burclaff.

Have you ever purchased food storage containers at a party? Or have you been on the other end, selling products to friends or friends of friends, or making cold calls? Home product parties, like those for Pampered Chef, Mary Kay, or Tupperware, are ways for those in direct sales to showcase products and make a large number of transactions at one time (and if your potential customers are like me, maybe they have a hard time saying no to someone earnestly selling in a friend’s living room). The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the growth of e-commerce as more and more people are buying and selling online, so direct sales have found new strategies in the form of virtual parties. I recently went to one a friend hosted for nail manicures, where guests could comment, play games, and win free samples.

As I was researching more information about the history of direct sales, I came across an 1889 booklet in the Library’s collection, What It Requires to Become a Successful Canvasser by William M. Goldthwaite. Today in the United States, we often think of a canvasser as someone soliciting votes, but historically, canvassers were also those who solicited orders for items such as books or life insurance policies.

cover What It Requires to Become a Successful Canvasser by William M. Goldthwaite

What It Requires to Become a Successful Canvasser by William M. Goldthwaite.

Goldthwaite, writing as “One Having Had Experience,” gives a number of strategies for making a sale, but notes “even the best cannot always sell.” Just like you might decline the invitation to a product party, pretend you aren’t home when the doorbell rings, or find other ways to avoid a sales pitch, folks in the late 1800s felt the same way about canvassers. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, in one of its definition quotations of “canvasser,” uses a line from an 1879 issue of the Printing Trades Journal: “One of the greatest nuisances of the day is the canvasser.”

Fuller Brush salesman 1962

Fuller Brush salesman visiting a home, 1962. Marion S. Trikosko, photographer.
//www.loc.gov/item/2015650974/

Goldthwaite republished an editorial from the June 4th, 1883 New York Sun, where a person wrote about how difficult it was to be a canvasser when the general opinion was that canvassing “is a degrading and offensive work,” and said how they were “pained to see people’s countenance change from cordial welcome to intense disappointment, and many times disgust, on making my business known.” They wondered if book selling was worthwhile to continue, even though they were making good money.

In response to this and in encouragement to current and would-be canvassers, the book offers the following: “Remember this. There is no better schooling for the building and strengthening of character. Your experience as an agent will broaden your ideas of the world, rub off the angles and give you a quick insight into human nature and motives. You will acquire tact, self-independence, and a degree of control over the men you deal with.”

Saleswoman demonstrating the use of a gadget at booth at the Gonzales County Fair

Saleswoman demonstrating the use of a gadget at booth at the Gonzales County Fair in Gonzales, Texas. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection
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Direct selling strategies have changed in many ways since 1889, but some of the experiences remain the same. Canvassers or direct sellers still need to find the right sales approach, have confidence and determination, and of course, deal with disgruntled people. Olga Stanley noted in 1897 in her Outlook article “Experiences of a Woman Canvasser,” that “a succession of calls resulted in no subscribers, but plenty of enlivening incidents.”

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