Today, a door-to-door salesman likely wouldn’t have much luck making a living. But, when I was a kid, a knock at the door by a stranger wasn’t something you feared, it was a new adventure.
In the 1960s, my family didn’t have a telephone. We also only had one car, which meant that while my dad was at work we were at home with no means of communicating with the outside world or going anywhere. That is, unless we walked somewhere or people came to us.
That’s where traveling salesmen came into the picture. There were many families like ours. The dad worked. The mom stayed home with the kids. And with just one salary, you couldn’t afford a telephone or more than one vehicle.
If companies wanted to sell their products, they had to come to you. And fifty-plus years ago, come to our home they did.
The most common sales visitors I recall were hawking vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, brushes, and cleaning products.
“Hello, ma’am. Are you the woman of the house?” the salesman would say.
“Yes, I am,” my mom would answer.
“I represent the ACME company and I wanted to stop by today to let you know that I just happened to be in your neighborhood. This is your lucky day. Our supply of new, space-age floor waxer models are almost gone, but I just happened to have one left in my car. Could I come inside and wax your floor for free?”
The idea of allowing a complete stranger to come into your home today – with just the mom and kids there – seems absolutely out of the question now. But our country was a calmer and nicer place just a half-century ago. You could let strangers in your home. And if they were offering to wax the floor, listening to their sales pitch was a small price to pay to get the floor redone.
If you were one of the kids of the home, it was like getting a free, unexpected show. Not much went on back then for kids. “Days of Our Lives” and “As The World Turns” were about the only thing on television, so some stranger trying to sell your mom a product was like watching a sports match.
He’d make a pitch and she’d counter it with why she already had what she needed.
I enjoyed watching the back-and-forth repartee. Who would win? My mom, or the sales guy? My money was almost always on my mom. We didn’t have much money and she was not afraid of hard work. So, doing things the old fashioned way wasn’t a problem for her. It would take a good salesman to get her to buy something.
Our home at the time was built just after World War II. The living room, hallway, dining room, and bedrooms had hardwood floors. Every now and then you had to strip the floors and rewax them.
The fellow selling that Electrolux floor waxer put on an impressive display. And his easy payment plan she insisted on sealed the deal.
I remember my dad coming home and saying, “You bought a what?”
My mom knew a good deal when she saw one. She won on the waxer and the payment plan, and she won the match with my dad later that night.
The Fuller Brush Man was a visitor in many neighborhoods. The Fuller Brush Company started in business in 1906. They sold all types of household products including, of course, brushes, but also cleaning products and even can openers.
My wife bought one of their can openers as late as the 1980s, and it was very well made and worked great.
The most common door-to-door salesmen I recall, though, sold encyclopedias. With no telephone and only one car, the only way that a kid could do research for school work was by either walking to the library, or by using the encyclopedia set their parents bought for them from some guy who came to the door.
The Encyclopedia Britannica was the most common set you’d see in someone’s home, but my parents bought two different sets that were printed by other companies. I spent many hours with my head in those books learning about other countries or the origins of tribes or animal species.
Today, it’s almost impossible to give away a set of encyclopedias, but during their heyday, encyclopedias were very expensive and very valuable.
One of the richest men in the United States started out selling encyclopedias. John Paul DeJoria is the co-founder of a hair care company you may have heard of.
DeJoria slept in his car and sold shampoo door-to-door before he partnered with Paul Mitchell in the early 1980s and turned a $700 investment into John Paul Mitchell Systems. Today, DeJoria is worth $2.6 billion.
Other successful business people who also started out in sales include Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. He worked in sales for XEROX when he was in his 20s, and was CEO and chairman of Starbucks by age 35.
Warren Buffet is one of the richest men in the world. He started out selling newspapers. Today, he’s worth billions.
Mark Cuban was a billionaire by age 41. But, he started out by selling garbage bags.
Knocking on doors without an appointment is called, ‘cold-call sales.’ I’ve done that type of sales off and on during my career, and did it again when I was trying to get different book stores to carry my first book.
Barnes and Noble turned me down flat. They said that they just weren’t interested.
But, I didn’t give up. I decided to self-publish on Amazon and also sell the books myself at events. I didn’t get the answer I wanted, so I found a different way to get where I wanted to go.
Sadly, you really can’t sell door-to-door anymore. The level of trust we had five decades ago is gone. That type of sales is very tough, but it teaches you how to take rejection and that perseverance pays off.
I never did call on Barnes and Noble again, but my book obviously got their attention from it’s place on Amazon. I noticed last week that Barnes and Noble decided to carry it on their website. They must be buying it from Amazon and reselling it, because they never called me back directly.
I guess I take after my momma. I won that match too.
©2019 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.