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Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America

Author(s):Friedman, Walter A.
Reviewer(s):Vitell, Scott J.

Published by EH.Net (September 2004)

Walter A. Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004. 356 pp. Illustrations, notes and index. (cloth), ISBN 0-674-01298-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Scott J. Vitell, Department of Marketing, The University of Mississippi.

In Birth of a Salesman, the author, an historian at Harvard Business School, provides an informative and often entertaining narrative of the evolution of selling in America from the early itinerant peddlers to the well-trained sales professional. The book essentially starts with the story of the independent, itinerant merchants who, beginning in the early 1800s, traveled from town to town and farm to farm with a diversity of goods such as pots, pans, pails and various utensils. Friedman touches upon the obstacles that these early salesmen faced including the lack of a federal currency prior to the 1860s. Of course, they also met with a good deal of customer skepticism and were often seen as disruptive by local merchants and politicians. Friedman skillfully covers all of this with a large dose of amusing and informative anecdotal evidence from peddlers of this era.

The book continues though the latter half of the 1800s explicating the roles of the canvasser, a salesman of petty goods, who traveled from farmhouse to farmhouse, and the drummer, a salesman either employed by a large wholesale house or who worked independently calling on businessmen to establish long term customer relationships. Both of these sales types were at their peak in the 1880s and both were the predecessors of the more modern salesman that was to come in the twentieth century.

Friedman continues with the development of the “modern” sales force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These sales forces were primarily the product of mass manufacturing operations that attempted to produce uniform salesmen using uniform arguments. Contrary to the drummers and canvassers, these salesmen represented the manufacturer not themselves. This led to the creation of the sales manager position — someone who was responsible for the training and managing of the sales force through quotas, commission rates and territorial assignments.

Friedman extensively covers the selling activities at companies such as Heinz and National Cash Register (NCR), among others, as well as the dynamic and innovative personalities behind these extremely successful sales organizations. Also covered thoroughly are the early years of sales as a “science.” The contributions of sociologists and psychologists, such as Walter D. Scott, to the sales profession are cited. Scott, who became head of the Bureau of Salesmanship Research at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1916, worked on various projects that resulted in isolating the characteristics of the successful salesman and systematizing the sales personnel selection process.

In the 1920s, the importance of selling and “salesmanship” became widely recognized by almost all successful businesses. Friedman highlights this era with examples from companies such as General Motors and the Fuller Brush Company and includes details about the leading sales personalities at these organizations and many of their sales tactics and strategies. He continues his narrative into the 1930s discussing the impact of the great depression on the personal selling field. During this decade, the prestige of salesmen faded significantly; however, later individuals such as Dale Carnegie, among others, helped to redeem the image of the salesman.

The narrative concludes with a brief look at salesmanship today, including the advent of the infomercial, the actual study of salesmanship today, and data such as the percent of the work force currently in sales (12%) and the number of people in sales-related jobs (16 million).

If Friedman’s text has any flaws, and they are few, it might be that the book is almost too detailed in his narrative of the “birth” of modern selling. That is, there is an almost too abundant plethora of examples throughout the text which are used to illustrate his various points, including copious endnotes for those interested in delving further into particular issues. Nevertheless, he does provide the reader with an interesting and compelling history of the birth and development of selling in America, and he does an excellent job of recreating the growth and metamorphosis of modern salesmanship over the years. Marketing professors, among others, should find this to be a valuable supplemental read for their students in a marketing history or sales course.

Scott J. Vitell is the Phil B. Hardin Professor of Marketing at the University of Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Texas Tech University. Currently he is the Marketing Section Editor for the Journal of Business Ethics and serves on the editorial review boards of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science and the Journal of Business Research. His recent publications have appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Retailing, the Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Business Ethics: A European Review, International Business Review and the Journal of Consumer Marketing, among others. He has also published in many national and international conferences.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII