Oh, what a fascinating lot we Americans are! Where technology leads, the enterprising mind follows. Where once struggling entrepreneurs craved to get a foot in the door – and yelped when their big toe was mistaken for a doorstop – we now eschew the resulting trip to the podiatrist in favor of an electronic handshake. And where airports once offered a barrage of flower-wielding disciples to go with curbside check-in, now people with products extending far beyond those plucked from their backyards sell them online at sites such as eBay.
This spate of rampant entrepreneurship owes its roots to a slice of Americana once as common as drive-in theaters and masked wrestlers from south of the border – the door-to-door salesman.
Of course, selling door-to-door is neither a new nor a novel idea – in fact, it sounds like a terrible idea for a novel, but I’ll continue anyway. Over a 150 years ago, while trees and shrubs were being cleared to make way for urban development and suburban sprawl, C. W. Stuart and Co. of Newark, NY, foresaw the modern boom in home improvement. The company went door to door, selling what looked a lot like the previously uprooted trees and shrubs back to the consumer. Johnny-come-latelies to the field, like The Home Depot and Loew’s, are merely trampling on the footsteps of this door-to-door pioneer.
According to headlines ripped from the April 1952 pages of one of America’s leading publications, Modern Mechanix (later Mechanix Illustrated, then Home Mechanix, reintroduced as Today’s Homeowner, and finally, onto its current incarnation, defunct), fully two per cent of America’s workforce made over $7 billion in 1951 in door-to-door sales. This fabulous figure was more than double the previous peak, which occurred only a year earlier.
Yes, door-to-door selling had opened the door to self-employment, independence, fallen arches and untold copies of IRS Form 1099 for the average Joe. By 1952, over 3000 manufacturers employed door-to-door salesmen who dragged their feet across the rugs of America, hawking everything from brushes to nylons to fire extinguishers. In a tough, competitive market like New York, for instance, it was estimated that by 1952, half of all television sets purchased were sold by door-to-door salesmen. The considerable weight of those early television sets, plus the fact that most New Yorkers lived in tenements built before Elisha Otis patented the elevator, gave rise to a cottage industry that provided these exhausted pioneers with an additional, sorely needed means of support – a truss.
Today’s cyber-flea market goods fare poorly when compared to those peddled by the intrepid doorknockers of years past. Many goods sold as new today are often discontinued models or unopened birthday gifts. The products of yore sold door-to-door, on the other hand, had the same quality as items found in a retail store – or those that had fallen off the back of a truck.
With any commercial endeavor, however, lax oversight leads to enormous profits, and hucksters took advantage of this, selling products that bore the unique signature of the era, Cold War hysteria. A salesman in Los Angeles was arrested for selling an “anti-atom bomb” lotion. It turned out to be nothing more than a homemade mixture of water and cold cream, which he sold for $2.49 per half pint. As it only cost him six cents to make, one has to give him some credit for properly channeling the spirit of free market capitalism.
Still other salesmen, a dollar or so shy of moral integrity, found themselves filling idle hours in the pokey after having talked people into buying special clothing for protection against the effects of an atomic explosion.
Of course, not every unscrupulous salesman preyed upon people’s fear of impending nuclear Armageddon. There was the example of the fellow who sold inflammable brushed-rayon sweaters that burst into flame so easily authorities believed the wearers were victims of spontaneous human combustion.
The intervention of policing units like the Better Business Bureau helped rid the profession of its unsavory reputation, and door-to-door selling became one of the cleanest and most lucrative professions of the day. Success stories abounded…
§ Al Gogolin new nothing about Toledo, Ohio in 1948, but he went there anyway to establish his home heating equipment business. He rang doorbells, convinced the housewife would go for a smile and a good thing if it were brought directly to her attention. In his first full year, Gogolin chalked up more than $100,000 in gross sales. Four years later, the Gogolin Heating Co., ringing more doorbells and tracking inside more mud than ever before, had five top salesmen, five junior salesmen and a half dozen mechanics to keep up with its orders to repair and install heating equipment.
§ Even more spectacular is the case of Forest S. Barrett. In 1941, when American radios were preoccupied with news flashes of The Blitzkrieg and Japan was still only an oil-starved nuisance, Barrett took a job with a Bible distribution firm, going door-to-door with the sales pitch, “Read the Bible to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be holy.”
In a few years, Barrett became the firm’s sales manager, later a partner. By 1945, the company was changed to Barrett Distributors and moved to Dallas, Texas, with Forest S. Barrett as president and sole owner. By 1952 he employed 300 door-to-door salesmen and an office staff of 30, with estimated sales for 1951 at close to $3,000,000.
What the pious Mr. Barrett had done was to add a new twist to door-to-door salesmanship – he used the chain-letter principle, calling it pyramiding partnership. He formed a partnership agreement with a salesman and left that salesman free to form a similar (or different) profit agreement with anyone else. Each succeeding salesman thereafter joined the previous salesman in a separate agreement of his own. Barrett claimed that “anyone capable of following instructions, recruiting, hiring and managing other people” had unlimited opportunities with him. Sound familiar?
The independent salesman of the 1950’s had a vast array of products to choose from: floor waxers, popcorn machines, vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, tools, gas and oil savers, fruit trees, machine tools, ball point pens, greeting cards, food products, insecticides, soap, razor blades, store signs, radios, typewriters and more.
Most people who started quickly learned the first rule of door-to-door selling: Don’t call yourself a door-to-door salesman. Instead, use sales representative, distributor, factory representative or any other name that connotes a sense of class, on your business card and in newspaper ads.
Second, don’t sell encyclopedias door-to-door in New York City. The New York Post hired 3000 men to sell them as part of a special ad campaign. After three years of being ignored, cursed at, chased, beaten and robbed, only 32 men remained on the job.
Third, keep your annual earnings a secret. A survey at the time by Barron’s found that average annual earnings of door-to-door salesmen ranged from $6,000 to $20,000 a year. But most did not make their full earnings known to the public for fear of increasing competition in their area.
For those men who sought a career walking the beaten path, the chances were they would not do as well as the success stories above. Then as now, it takes a lot of time to get a decent-sized company rolling. But if you could ring doorbells and enjoyed the gift of gab, there was no reason why you couldn’t talk yourself into a sizable income, or a stretch in prison.