Training School for Boys

By Clark, Earl | The Saturday Evening Post, July/August 1996 | Go to article overview

Training School for Boys

Clark, Earl, The Saturday Evening Post

Curtis Publishing developed a marketing scheme at the turn of the century that increased magazine sales and taught business skills to young boys.

Back in the "Roaring Twenties," the Curtis Publishing Company's Saturday Evening Post was incontestably America's foremost magazine, with the most popular authors and illustrators, the most advertising, and the biggest circulation. But it had something else that helped it achieve that multimillion circulation; since 1899, it had employed one of the shrewdest merchandising strategies in the history of magazine publishing.

Called the League of Curtis Salesmen, it had recruited, by the time the Post put an end to its operation in the 1940s, up to a quarter million boys, many of whom would go on to become successful retailers, chief executive officers, educators, administrators, or professionals. And most of them could credit much of their success to the training they received from this remarkable organization.

What the wizards of the Curtis company conceived was a masterful combination of appeals to a boy's sense of acquisitiveness and his desire for prestige. The former offered prizes calculated to appeal to every boy. As for prestige, what other youngsters were provided with their own printed letterhead, envelopes, and even business cards?

Entry into the League required no initiation fee or references. Periodically, the Post ran advertisements heralding the accomplishments of its youthful salesmen and inviting newcomers to join the ranks. It was in response to such an ad that this author found himself at May's Drug Store in the dusty little town of Charles City, Iowa, on a December Thursday in 1921, hesitantly accepting delivery of ten copies of The Saturday Evening Post to dispose of at a nickel per sale.

It did not take long for me to learn that there was a lot more to gain than the ll/2 cents that I got to keep out of each nickel, and what happened to me from then on is a microcosm of how the League worked. For every five Posts I sold, it seemed, I would receive one green voucher, five of which could be redeemed for one brown voucher. These handsomely printed "Brownies" could be accumulated in sufficient amounts to bring me an Auto Wheel coaster wagon, a Hohner harmonica complete with trumpets, a Columbia bicycle (one speed in those days, of course), and innumerable other goodies displayed in the Curtis Book of Prizes.

The League also had a semievangelical quality that might strike today's worldly youths as ridiculously corny, but it was a perfect fit for the conventions of the Coolidge era and a business-oriented publication like the Post. Its philosophy reflected the tenets of Cyrus H. K. Curtis, a one-time newsboy who, in true Horatio Alger style, went on to found his publishing company in Philadelphia in 1891. The theory was that lads selling Curtis publications not only would earn commissions and prizes, but would also learn how to meet strangers, sell a product on its merits, and keep accurate business recordsall the while progressing through the ranks, much like boy scouts going from tenderfoot to eagle.

The Book of Prizes, revised each spring and fall, displayed more than 200 alluring treasures for which the Brownies could be exchanged. Manufacturers' representatives beat a path to the Curtis door to get a piece of the action. The company became the largest purchaser of Louisville Slugger baseball bats, as well as Spalding baseballs and gloves.

The emphasis on brand names of top quality is evidenced by an incident related to me by Ford Robinson, a retired Curtis senior vice president who in the 1920s was the company's prize manager. His story involved George Horace Lorimer, who held the Post's editorial reins from 1899 to 1937. It seems that when the father of a Curtis salesman discovered that the headlight of the bicycle his son ordered from the Prize Book was powered by a Japanese-made bulb, he fired off an indignant letter, not to the prize manager but to George Lorimer himself. …

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