Magazine article Humanities

Traveling Man

Magazine article Humanities

Traveling Man

Article excerpt

ILLINOIS WHEN ARTHUR MILLER'S DEATH OFA SALESMAN appeared on stage in 1949, the traveling salesman became - and, in the minds of many, has remained - synonymous with middledass tragedy.

But for Ronald Solberg, the traveling salesman is not so easy to define. "So many different images come to my mind with those two words/' he writes. "A peddler with a sack slung over his back, a wry teller of tales with a farmer-city slicker story," or a hustler with "a wagon filled with ointments and elixirs." Solberg once peddled brushes in southern Minnesota, but has since laid down his grip - or sample case. Currently a history teacher, Solberg worked also in public relations and advertising, and was, at one point, the communications director for the Million Dollar Round Table, an international association of life insurance salesmen.

In 2002, Solberg was commissioned by Chicago's Newberry Library to compile lesson plans on turn-of-the-century labor activity. His experiences on the road and with the MDRT were his inspiration. Seven years of research produced The Whizbangs ofOohs andAhs - America's Salesmen: Their Lore, Lives and Laughs, and he now lectures on the subject through the Illinois Humanities Council's Road Scholars program.

"There's certainly some truth to Death of a Salesman, but that's only one side of it," says Solberg. On the bright side, it is a career that has attracted multitalented individuals, who have collectively altered our culture. Former salesmen include E T Barnum, L. Frank Baum, Benedict Arnold, and John Chapman, who is more affectionately known as Johnny Appleseed. A more exhaustive list contains some commercial titans, from the founders of department stores to the top grossers in condiment and chewing gum sales.

The traveling salesman, Solberg writes, is uniquely American. In the eighteenth century, "peddlers were quite rare in Europe because craft guilds provided local artisans with monopolies in their territories." The U.S., on the other hand, lacked regulations and its artisans required a class of men to dole out their products. Some salesmen became general merchants hawking small essentials that were effortlessly transported, such as pins, needles, scissors, and combs. Others became specialized dealers, limiting their wares to a single product.

In the late nineteenth century, rail hubs, like Chicago, became springboards for roaming merchants, who doubled as "walking newspapers and purveyors of information," says Solberg. Businesses, like the Fuller Brush Company (for which Solberg's father was a field manager), relied on the charm of their salesmen. …

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