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The History of Sales - Told 101 Years Ago

· sales history

I read a lot of sales books - but not the ones you are probably thinking about;

The sales books I read are 75-150 years old.

I’m an addict. My collection is now up to twenty-nine such books (1879-1969), with most between 1909-1925. Plus, I have digital collections of magazines on the sales profession from 1903-1911. It’s my hobby.

Last Friday night’s book was titled Personal Selling, written and published in 1920.

The beginning of Chapter 1 stopped me in my tracks. It was so thought-provoking, I quite literally couldn’t sleep.

The beginning of Chapter 1 was a telling of the history of sales.

The history of sales, told 101 years ago.

When you think about how long the profession of sales has been around in a similar structure to how it is today, how far back would you go? Scroll your LinkedIn timeline, and most posts write as though the profession has only just begun - or that the profession didn’t actually come to be until the 1930s. The typical first book referred to that has to do with sales ever mentioned is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in October of 1936.

The book is a doubt about it. However, the ideas of the book were written about by countless other authors in countless other books way before 1936

The history of sales...from the perspective of Personal Selling’s author, Wesley A. Stanger, is as timeless as it is accurate.

Stanger comments that “the business of selling is still in its cradle clothes”, and here we are, in 2021, and I still believe that to be true.

The profession evolves - as we learn as a people and society, as circumstances change, and as technologies change. Here’s my retelling of Wesley Stanger’s perspective on “The History of Sales” - through 1920, and beyond.

The Original

Stanger begins his explanation by taking us back to the beginning of time. We, as human beings, derived our sustenance from the Earth - eating what we could eat and taming wild animals.

Over time, we began to understand that we could actually cultivate Earth, and make it produce more abundantly.

Some groups and tribes were learning this faster than others, and as humans began to mingle with others, the realization that some could secure and produce better than others caused stronger tribes to simply take from weaker tribes. Survival, longevity, and security came at the price of fighting and war.

The mingling of tribes started to take the form of interchanging ideas and sometimes exchanging what they had produced. The weaker tribes were learning from their conquerors and quickly realized that exchanges could take place without war.

Stanger says, “Man had begun to place values,” to mean that human beings figured out what value a produced item could hold, and what it could be traded for. And thus...

“The embryo salesman made his appearance on Earth."

As the idea of trading grew, values were placed on what you had, and what you wanted. It’s what you did.

Because the actualization of trade meant that tribes didn’t have to provide everything for themselves in order to survive, people began to divide into specializations; hunters, agriculturalists, shepherds, fishermen, all producing what others needed, which gave rise to a form of commerce.

Soon after, labor began to also have a value, which spawned the rise of tradesmen and specialists, like expert cave builders or hut makers, armorers, and producers of arrowheads, stone knives, and other instruments.

Stanger states that “once man had progressed past food and shelter, things became more complex.” It was no longer just “needs”, there were now a market for “wants”, too.

How could values be established for so many things? Eventually, values became expressed in items, mensuration, weights and measures - which led to the birth of currency.

Picture this - you need something that you are not able to produce yourself. What do you do? Maybe you’ve bred some livestock that you’re willing to trade, so you wander around trying to find someone who has what you need, then offer your surplus livestock for it.

The problem this created led to trade events, where people met at regular intervals and at stated places. You brought what you had produced, raised, or accumulated, and made trades.

Everyone was a salesperson.

Everyone was a buyer.

This was the way, according to Stanger, for centuries…

As complexities and offerings grew, so did the necessity of attention to the producers of goods to their crafts, allowing for very little time to “trade”. With this, the next evolution was born - the “intermediary”, “middleman”, or the “merchant salesperson”.

This took the form of a “definitely located store”, and Stanger goes on to define them as “a salesman who had nothing of his own production to sell but who sold for the others who did produce, and changed for his labor.”

Merchants allowed farmers to farm, artisans to spend all their time at their benches and manufacturers to manufacture. Specialists and professionals could devote their time to their craft, and the intermediaries became the means of exchange.

This level of complexity and organization led to a need for more challenges - more responsibility - more delegation required.

A merchant would need to dispose of goods that had accumulated but had not sold in the store itself, a need for a salesperson. Similar to how today, we can’t just build a store or an eCommerce site and expect people to show up and buy everything. Salespeople were hired to bring the surplus goods out to market. To educate. “The merchant dealt with the producer, but the people whom he delegated the distribution dealt with the consumer.” ← the salesperson.

Picking up where Stanger leaves off, Harold Whitehead in his 1923 book, The Business of Selling describes this distribution by proclaiming that, “Houses, horseshoes, ink, insurance, and all kinds of commodities can be passed from one person or firm to another only by the work of the salesman.”

Whitehead takes us forward to a time when travel became more pervasive, and salespeople had the means to more easily represent the merchants, who sold on behalf of the producers across a greater landscape.

These early traveling salesmen who referred to as “drummers”, and as Whitehead describes, “business did not have the same moral quality that it possesses today.” A drummer judged their own success merely by how much they sold. If they sold goods that weren’t of value to a customer, that didn’t trouble the drummer. In most instances, the drummer would never know of any issue or injury to the customer.

And as Stanger adds, "to be a salesman at one time it was supposed that a man had to carry about so much hard liquor with him, and that the best salesman was the man who skinned the buyer the closest." He added that those qualifications, "have no place in the profession at all" now.

Pic. Cover of "Drummers Yarns", 1885. These magazines contained jokes that "Drummers" could use to endear prospects to them.

Harold Whitehead captures the sentiment of the professional salesperson in 1923: “The traveling salesman of today does all in his power to help the business of his customers grow, for the more prosperous they become, the more merchandise he can sell him.”

In the author's opinion, “salesmen were here before we had lawyers and doctors. Salesmen were here before we had government.

  • “People demanded relief from disagreement and a regulation of action - lawyers”

  • “People required relief from bodily ills - doctors”

  • “People demanded a means of disposing of surplus goods, a method of exchange of values, a leveling of the accumulation of visible wealth - salespeople”

Sales, 100 years ago, was not only trusted and was also ADMIRED.

Salespeople, selling the right products to the right customers at the right time, solely focused on those customers’ successes, rose everyone up. When those customers succeeded, the economy succeeded. When the economy succeeds, everyone grows, and the country flourishes. When the country flourishes, everyone wins - and the salesperson was seen as the key link to our country’s success.

As Stanger so eloquently puts it, "(The salesperson) is, possibly, the most important link in the entire plan of modern civilization."

I believe we, as a profession, began to lose that focus on our customer’s success and reverted in certain ways back to the perspective of the drummer. It’s not all our fault...the gifts of technology, like the telephone and email, lost our connection to the customer through the physical distance lost in exchange for the convenience and efficiency gained.

I pick up the story from here in this article, with advice on how to restore that admiration to what once was, and pick ourselves up from the bottom of Gallup’s annual ‘trusted professions’ list.

But I’ll leave you with this last Wesley Stanger quote from the book - again, written in 1920:

“Sales is the livest profession there is. It is the one profession that daily abandons the precedents of yesterday and makes new ones for new situations.”

Todd Caponi is the author of the 3x best-book-award-winning and international best-seller, The Transparency Sale and a speaker & workshop leader as Principal of Sales Melon LLC. Todd is also a multi-time C-Level sales leader, a behavioral science nerd and has guided two companies to successful exits.

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