Salesmen of the Past

By Moore, Margaret | Contemporary Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Salesmen of the Past


Moore, Margaret, Contemporary Review


The conquest of our shopping streets by multiples and supermarkets has been much discussed in pubs, offices and letters pages. But in lamenting the disappearance of our friendly local shopkeeper we tend to forget a sober-suited figure that used to back courteously into the shadows at the approach of the humblest customer.

In these days of centralised purchasing the paths of wholesaler's representative and domestic shopper rarely cross. Television advertisements for high-priced computers and executive transport suggest that today's top salesmen circulate in considerable style. Joseph Brown, the author of Life in the Road, first published in 1885, held out no such hopes for his successors. 'Thirty years ago,' he recalled, 'we were "Commercial Gentlemen". A few years later, as we grew more numerous, we were "Commercial Travellers". Now, when trade is abnormally bad, we are described as "Commercial Troublers", and if it does not expand soon (of which there is no sign), many of the body will simply be "Commercial Mendicants".'

The road did indeed wind uphill for many late-Victorian and Edwardian salesmen. Securing a buyer's attention was by no means easy, holding it even harder. Although samples were less necessary than before in the chemical and other trades where brand names had become established, they remained essential in other lines. E.B. Grieve devotes a whole chapter of his 1903 instructional manual to the topic of opening the sample bag.

For drapers' suppliers a mere bag was insufficient. Porters' trolleys accompanied them from shop to shop. Or not, as in the case of an unfortunate silks salesman of Joseph Brown's acquaintance. Emerging after breakfast to begin his day's rounds in Newcastle, he learnt that a rival had redirected his barrowman to Gateshead.

Turn-of-the-century travellers gazed with envy at the groaning board depicted in The Bagman's Dinner, a print which hung in the commercial room of many a British country hotel. Lower profit margins in an increasingly competitive market had pegged down salaries, commissions and subsistence allowances. Cheaper fare was now served at the commercial dinner, still traditionally eaten at 1.15 p.m., and wine had become an optional extra. Even so, some hard-pressed married men had been forced to abandon the convivial licensed hostelries for cheaper temperance houses.

For older turn-of-the-century travellers the loss of prestige was almost as painful as cuts in creature comforts. Provincial shopkeepers were now mostly newspaper readers and no longer relied on business callers for information on market trends. In 1904 A. Warren warned novices to expect rudeness and impatience, if not downright contempt, from potential customers.

Popular novelists, playwrights and music-hall comedians poured scorn on the selling fraternity. Unfairly, in Warren's opinion. True, he conceded, business travellers liked to eat and drink well. But they worked a twelve-hour day, mostly on their feet. If they merely raised and replaced their headgear instead of uncovering like true gentlemen, it was because in most shops there was nowhere where a hat could be deposited without causing inconvenience.

A more serious problem, to Warren's mind, was the recent appearance on the road of bumptious, rude, boastful and dishonest newcomers. …

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