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Salesmen of the past.

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. But such youngsters were soon cut down to size by their colleagues, and their faults should be laid at the door of those who hired them. Too many employers laboured under the delusion that 'push' and 'cheek' made a good salesman.

In one respect at least, Edwardian commercial travellers had a less stressful lifestyle than their mid-Victorian predecessors. In the 1850s and 1860s three-monthly tours of duty had been commonplace. Family life suffered and alternative consolations beckoned. Salesmen were required to collect their customers' unpaid bills. Before the advent of nationwide banking networks, they might accumulate large amounts of cash from which they were allowed to deduct their salaries.

Temptations to overspend and embezzle could be irresistible to men of modest means. Some made good their deficits by false accounting, but for others dismissal and disgrace loomed. And occasionally self-destruction. Warren believed that a drop in reported suicides among commercial travellers between 1871 and 1891 was linked to reducing opportunities for fraud.

Deaths from alcoholism, however, remained disturbingly common. Not a few salesmen may have been tempted to heavy drinking or gambling after nine p.m. when commercial room etiquette permitted indulgence in smoking and noisier pursuits.

Many, however, confined themselves to more harmless pastimes. A talent to amuse could be turned to spare-time advantage. R. Symons delighted the audience at a local tradesmen's concert with his musical expertise on the bellows. He deployed sleight-of-hand at a Norwich circus to revenge himself on a clown who had insulted his calling.

It is perhaps natural that men who were obliged to flatter and humour those they did business with should take childish pleasure in playing practical jokes on others. Symons describes several ploys for the despatch of unwanted intruders from railway carriages. An operatic selection on a tin whistle might do the trick. Or, if time permitted and a co-operative colleague agreed to be bandaged with a handkerchief, the intending fellow-passenger might be asked if he objected to smallpox.

It seems unlikely that the very few women in the business were included in such schoolboyish japes. Joseph Brown recalled a 'Lady Commercial' who had sold women's underclothing in the Midlands. He added the comment that 'the road is not by any means women's proper sphere, and doubtless the lady in question thought so, for long since she has retired into domestic life'.

Writing some twenty years later than Brown, Warren was no less gloomy in his assessment of the current commercial scene. However, he held out stronger hopes for the future. Travellers, he urged, should adopt American and German sales techniques, study foreign languages and customs, and seek new markets abroad. New transport and communication technologies were soon to force the pace of such changes. Already in 1904 the days of the old-style British commercial traveller were numbered. Now he lingers only in the shadowy corners of older shoppers' memories as a polite, self-effacing ghost.
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Author:Moore, Margaret
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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