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Sales History: The Odd (by today's standards) Methodologies of the Early 20th Century

· sales history,sales methodology

If you've been following along with my Sales History nerdery, you've read or heard me talking about some of the stories, pioneers, perceptions and education in the sales profession’s past, but today, let’s get weird. Today, we’re going to discuss the prominence and pervasiveness of “character analysis” in sales in the early 20th century. 

Character analysis? 

The thought was that if you could find a short-cut to reading someone’s inner character and thoughts, that discovery would be an incredible aid to all walks of life - but especially the sales profession.

From my research, there were waves of character analysis philosophies and methodologies not only imparted to sales organizations, but fully embraced. Things like astrology, palmistry, clairvoyance, telepathy, phrenology, graphology and physiognomy.

Want to hear a little more about them? 

Let’s talk about four of the most prominent ones at the time - 

  • Phrenology & Physiognomy - used as sales methodologies, 
  • Graphology - used in sales & recruiting, and,
  • Personality Testing - used primarily in recruiting & hiring.

A couple of these are still in use today...the last one, Personality Testing, is still found in popular workplace tools like Myers Briggs, DISC and many others.

Let’s start with...


Franz Joseph Gall has been credited with developing this in the late 1700’s, phrenology is the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities. In a sales context, the thought was - use phrenology to help salespeople adjust their approach based on the prospect’s head shape. 

It was seen as such a shortcut, there was a lot of attention given to a noted phrenologist named Grant Nablo, who is credited with creating one of many “Science of Selling” approaches - taking phrenology formally to the sales world.  

And, side note - the title “Science of Selling” was applied to many theories and philosophies of sales at the time. I have five books myself from the early 20th century with “Science” and “Sales” in the title. Even one from just a few years ago!

- but anyway…

...this one specifically was adopted by companies, including The Ford Motor Company, and specifically focused on phrenology. It is said, however I have yet to see it myself, that Ford’s 1923 sales manual says, “Sell the vehicle according to the shape of the prospect’s head. High foreheads leave room for larger development and indicate people who are less likely to resist new ideas.”

It was such a popular approach, Nablo was a heralded keynote speaker at the historic World Sales Congress in Detroit in July of 1916 that I spoke about in an earlier episode - the first conference of its kind, attended by over 3,000, and also keynoted by then president Woodrow Wilson in the middle of WW 1.

A big deal...


The art of discovering temperament and character from outward appearance. 

So, physiognomy was less about your melon, and more about everything else - from physiques to overall features. In other words, judging you based on how you look - then adjusting accordingly. 

I mean, what could go wrong with that, right?

While I was able to procure a digital copy of 1840’s Essays on Physiognomy, it’s over 800 pages long. I’m committed, but not that much! 

However, I was able to track down the work of one prominent expert in that space focused on the sales profession - Norris A. Brisco, a Ph.D from what was called State University of Iowa...which is officially called University of Iowa of 1964.

Professor Brisco wrote a book in 1916 called the Fundamentals of Salesmanship, which has a broad collection of solid advice, but dives deeply into this subject - kindof taking things off the rails a bit.

For fun, here’s a few of the thoughts - as Brisco was ALL IN on Physiognomy.

He believed, and I’m cool with his assessment, that no two prospects or customers are alike - and what makes a sale with one will not make an impression on another.  To him, Physiognomy was a short cut - it is about being able to size up customers quickly and decide how to handle them successfully.

But here’s a couple of examples - weird, confusing  examples.

He talks about starting with the person’s head - 

So, picture this: A customer is approaching, and you are supposed to look at their ears - where they are positioned on the head.

If they are positioned correctly on the head, meaning the head should be about two-thirds forward of the ears and one third back, it means there should be two parts of intellect to one of animal, as the intellectual should control the animal - animal propensities are situated at the back of the brain. Not quite accurate - as the reptilian is in the core, but I’ll stop before I get too nerdy. 

Anyway, Brisco theorized that if the ears are correctly positioned on the head, the person will be more intelligent, motivated more by logic and less by instinct.   

On the other hand, if the head is more round and the ears are about equal, it means they have stronger animal and selfish propensities. In other words, you can assume a customer to be selfish if they are very broad between and just a little above the ears. “Such a customer cares naught for anything except his own interests.”

And the face? It’s “the most interesting thing in the world. From observing the faces of customers, salespersons should be able to read their thoughts and feelings.”

The two “great expressive centers” of the face? The eyes and the mouth. 

My favorite quote from the book on the subject - his definition of “a stupid face”. read that right. 

Brisco says, 

“A stupid face has relaxed muscles, a half-open mouth, often one eyebrow higher than the other, and a vague and uncertain look which is directed to no definite point.”

He may be correct in that one!

Physiognomy as a methodology taught salespeople EVERY SINGLE OBSERVABLE PART OF THE BODY, how to assess it, then adjust your approach accordingly. 

Eyes, eyebrows, forehead - and there are 3 classes of them, wrinkles, the nose, the three classes of mouths, the lips specifically, “traits of character shown by the teeth”, the chin, hair...and hair color. 

Things like, “Auburn hair indicates a kind and sympathetic nature but fine auburn hair shows an excellent mind. Glossy black hair inclined to be wavy or curly indicates keen perception and usually a cautious secretive nature.” The fingers. Laughter. Traits of character expressed in the walk. 

I have no idea how a salesperson could take all of that in, and have the literal thousands of configurations ready in their head on how to engage. Crazy...and no surprise, it didn’t last.

Enough about that one - let’s talk ...


Graphology is the study of writing - so reading character in a person’s handwriting. At the time, handwriting was much more pervasive, so it was easier to get a handwriting sample - especially for a recruit. Here’s the core of the methodology according to Paul Nystrom, a Ph.D who wrote a book called The Economics of Retailing in 1919.

"Your thoughts tend to be expressed.

Your habits of thought are formed.

Expression becomes a habit."

Deep, eh? Well, that formula means that if you have a neatness in thinking, it would be likely that you also show it in neat writing. On the other hand, if you have more forceful thinking, your writing would reflect stronger & more jagged. 

And let’s end on...

Personality Tests

Before Myers Briggs & DISC, there was the work of Binet & Simon from 1908. The two had published work in France, having developed personality testing for children - primarily to determine their mental age. Once American doctors got a hold of it, they enhanced & sold it - and by 1919 these types of tests were being used by companies in recruiting. 

Interesting & enjoyable? Yes. Do I believe they should be used in an official capacity in sales or hiring? No more than disqualifying someone because they’re a Virgo or a Libra.

There’s many more oddities in sales history’s past - but we’ll stop there for today.

What do you think? When I’ve talked about phrenology before, I’ve had a few people tell me it’s real. Do you? Do you find credence in any of these? 

Reach out - comment below - let me know. How important are these? Do you use them at all? How?

My fingers are furiously creating book number 2, The Transparent Sales Leader. Pre-order is already up, even though the book won't be out until February of 2022, and I haven't finished writing it yet.

And, as sales kickoff planning begins, I'll not only have a new book out in Q1, but I'm still researching on all other things sales - the behaviorial science, history, research and practical application. I'd love to be a resource for you and your team! So, reach out...

By the way, you can listen to this, and other bits from sales history's past, on the Sales History Podcast! Find it wherever you listen...

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