In the three and a half years since I started this blog, I’ve read fifty-six books from a hundred years ago. Many of them, like The War-Whirl in Washington and Mary Marie, aren’t read much today.* But every one, no matter how obscure, was chosen by someone—me—with a contemporary sensibility. What if there were a way around this, I would occasionally wonder—a way to meet the world of a hundred years ago on its own terms, rather than through a 21st-century lens.
Last year, I thought of a way to do this: I’d read a random book. I picked up my copy of the 1920 Book Review Digest, flipped through it a few times, stopped, and, with my eyes closed, pointed to a place on the page.
And got…Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Wesley Ivey, Ph.D.!**
I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I could have ended up with anything—Hugh Temple Sheringham’s Trout Fishing Memoirs and Morals, for example, or Newell Dwight Hillis’s Rebuilding Europe in the Face of World-Wide Bolshevism. But no, I got a book about a topic I find fascinating, and that I had so far encountered only in Edna Ferber’s short stories about exhausted department store saleswomen.
Plus, Elements of Retail Salesmanship got the equivalent of two thumbs up in Book Review Digest, which classifies each excerpted review as +, +-, or -. “The information is put clearly and intelligently and the book is a good one of its kind,” the New York Evening Post said.
Next step: acquiring a copy. These days, you can buy just about any out-of-copyright book online. Some companies put the text into Word documents and bind them, generally with a tiny font and/or horrible formatting. Some do OCR scans of book texts, with unintelligible results. Other companies just print out the scanned text from Google Books. This, I have learned from experience, is the best, even though you often end up with people’s underlining and marginal comments.***
That is, you can get almost anything unless it’s the first wave of COVID, which it was, plus something weird was going on in the printing industry. My favorite out-of-print publisher, Forgotten Books, finally admitted defeat and cancelled my order, so I tried again with my second-favorite, Scholar Select. Elements of Retail Salesmanship arrived in late August, just before my brother and I set off from D.C. by car for a month-long stay in Colorado.****
Ivey was thirty years old and just starting out his career as a professor at the University of Nebraska when Element of Retail Salesmanship was published. He sets out his ambition for the book on the first page. “If it serves to make the salesperson see the educational possibilities in her work and the relation of better service to community welfare,” he says, “it will have served the purpose for which it was intended.” The “her” struck me as surprisingly woke for 1920, but Ivey explains in the footnote that “the feminine gender is used throughout this book because ninety-five percent of the customers and salespeople in department stores are women.”
Sometimes the idea of reading a hundred-year-old book is more exciting than the actual reading. And, to be honest, Elements of Retail Salesmanship dragged a bit at the start, while Professor Ivey walked us through the history of merchandising. There were some high points even here, though, like learning about how retail establishments used to employ “barkers” to lure people in from the street. Once the customer was inside, the retailer—who didn’t charge a fixed price, so every interaction was a bargaining session—was reluctant to let customers out until they bought something. I’m not sure how this was enforced, but it sounded alarming.
I was relieved, then, when John Wanamaker came along in the late 1800s, with his low-pressure sales tactics, fixed prices, and money-back guarantees. Like many visionaries, he was regarded as a lunatic at first, but eventually the mentality whereby, as Ivey puts it, “each merchant tried to climb to success over the dead body of his opponent” disappeared and the modern age of efficiency began.
In the next chapter, Ivey moves on to “Knowing the Goods.” This is, in his philosophy, the salesperson’s most important obligation. Take congoleum, for example. Few people, he says, know that it is merely tar paper printed on both sides. I consider myself one of the world’s foremost experts on congoleum by virtue of having heard of it, but I did not know this interesting fact!
Or take corsets. Ivey tells us that
during the reign of Catherine de Medici of France, no woman in her court could find favor in her eyes whose waist measure exceeded thirteen inches; that in order to reduce the waist measure to this figure corsets were laced by serving men while in some cases the figure was placed in a steel cage or corset frame which held the victim’s body in a vise-like and perfectly rigid grip; that the death rate increased among the women due to this custom, and, finally, Henry IV of France stamped out the injurious fashion by an imperial order.
This is a fascinating bit of history (or, actually, mythology–it’s been debunked), but it leaves me wondering what exactly the salesperson is supposed to do with it. “Did you know these things can kill you?” doesn’t seem like much of a sales pitch, as opposed to, say, claiming that women need an artificial exoskeleton to keep their internal organs in place.*****
Overall, though, Professor Ivey makes a convincing case for knowing the goods. You wouldn’t want to be like the salesperson who, asked why one pair of gloves cost $2.00 and a similar-looking pair cost $2.50, thought intensely for a few seconds and then answered, “I guess it is because they are marked that way.” Another giveaway about lack of product knowledge: excessive use of terms such as “nifty,” “swell,” “classy,” “great,” and “fine.”******
Professor Ivey has high hopes for retail merchandising as a profession, musing that
four to six years of continuous study after graduation from high school is the rule rather than the exception for those entering law and medicine and in some cases dentistry. If a similar period of time was spent in study and laboratory work by those entering retail selling they would become just as truly expert in their line and would command incomes proportionate to their effectiveness.
I mentally debated the microeconomics of this with Professor Ivey for a while, then forced myself to move on.
Luckily, there are ways to learn about the goods even without sitting in a classroom. For example, Ivey tells us, you can take home the informational material that manufacturers send with the merchandise and peruse it in your leisure hours. Or you can go to the library and read the encyclopedia entries on textiles, shoes, household furnishings, novelties, and other goods, which, he promises us, are “both entertaining and of an educational value.”
I decided to give this a test run. I found the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica on HathiTrust, opened the 15th volume, which luckily had the entry for “Jewelry,” and picked a passage at random.
I thought about Edna Ferber’s saleswomen, heading back to the boarding house, exhausted after being on their feet all day. My thoughts turned, too, to my younger self, tired out after a long day at the embassy in Phnom Penh, trying to read Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and just not having it in me. And the ambassador let me sit in a chair! I had my doubts about whether the extracurricular encyclopedia reading ever actually happened.
Luckily, Professor Ivey presents us with more enjoyable ways of improving our salesmanship. You can, for example, challenge yourself to engage as many of the customer’s senses as possible. You don’t just show her the aluminum kettle, you “ring” it. In the hands of a clever salesperson, he claims, silk can be made to “talk.’”
Then there’s the psychological angle. Ivey walks us through the different types of customer: the Impulsive or Nervous Customer, the Deliberate Customer, the Confident or Decisive Customer (“she walks into the store as a general would march into the camp of a defeated army”), the Silent or Indifferent Customer, and the Distrustful Customer. Selling to each type requires different tactics. One caveat, though, applies to all types: if a customer is considering an item of clothing, don’t say that you bought it yourself and are happy with it. Because who wants to dress like a salesclerk?
Salespeople, too, can be distinguished by personality. The ideal salesperson combines the traits of Enthusiasm, Honesty, Promptness (which turns out not to mean showing up for work on time but rather hopping to it when a customer needs help), and Cheerfulness.
Too often, Professor Ivey tells us, salespeople ask questions like, “Is there anything today,” “Waited on?” “Do you wish anything?” “Can I show you something?” or merely “Something?” Syntax aside, these seemed to me like normal salesperson inquiries, but Professor Ivey says that they indicate suspicion that the customer is a “looker” as opposed to a serious shopper. Better: “Do you desire service?” or “Do you wish attention?”
Cheerfulness, Professor Ivey, tells us, is not merely a matter of smiling. There are smiles and there are smiles. There is “the pitying smile, when the customer signifies a desire to look at a cheaper article than the first shown her,” as well as the sarcastic, knowing, idiotic, and bored smiles, and, lastly, the “Heaven-help-me” smile, exchanged with a colleague when the customer finds difficulty in deciding between two silverware patterns. Oh, I know those smiles all too well!
Enthusiasm, according to Professor Ivey, is not something that can be feigned. “All salespeople should have a feeling of admiration for the store in which they are working or else seek opportunities elsewhere,” he tells us. “Disloyalty can never be justified within an organization because sincerity would thereby be violated.”
And if you don’t wake up full of happiness? No problem. You just say to yourself, “This is a wonderful world. It’s great just to be alive,” or, “I feel fine, I feel happy.” Or you sing, or whistle.
With all due respect to Maria von Trapp, I’ve got some problems with this. I’m not expecting a marketing professor at the University of Nebraska in 1920 to be a Marxist, but seriously? “A feeling of admiration for the store in which they are working?” Have you ever HAD a job, Professor? (This is a rhetorical question–Ivey tells us that he has, in fact, worked in sales.) Also—where’s the chapter on what the salesperson can expect from her employer in exchange for all this expertise, psychological acumen, and sincere admiration?
I went back to my post on “What’s Your 1918 Girl Job?” to see what the Ladies’ Home Journal had to say about opportunities for women in sales:
The average pay is low, hours long, and the work is not easy, but employment is steady for the competent worker. Hours have been shortened, however, and conditions improved by the activity of the Consumers’ League. Chances for advancement are good, however, for the ambitious girl in the employ of a good firm. (July 1918)
The National Consumers’ League was an organization, founded by pioneering social worker Jane Addams and others, that advocated for better conditions for workers. Some of their causes seem odd today, such as their defense of an Oregon law that limited working hours for women, but not men, to ten hours a day (the case went to the Supreme Court and the law was upheld), but they were effective in combating poor working conditions, especially in sweatshops. We don’t hear a word from Professor Ivey about the National Consumers’ League. Or about trade unions, either.
Politics aside, I had developed a fondness for the affable professor, and I set out to learn more about him. He was born in Bessemer, Michigan, in 1890, and attended Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, with a thesis titled “The Liquor Industry and Industrial Efficiency,” and went on to the University of Michigan for his doctorate. In 1915, a year after his arrival in Michigan, he married Stella Walker, a widow whose first husband, a dentist, had died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 27. Ivey completed his dissertation, “The Pere Marquette Railroad,” in 1919, and started teaching at Nebraska that year. Here he is on the business administration department’s page in the university’s yearbook, bottom right, jokily captioned “Ivey-covered column.”
A new marriage, a professorship at a rapidly expanding university, and a book that was serialized in Publishers’ Weekly: all in all, a promising start. What was next? Mostly more of the same, as it turned out. Ivey left Nebraska for Northwestern University a few years later, and by 1932 he was teaching at the University of Southern California, where he would spend the rest of his career.
More books followed: Principles of Marketing in 1921, Salesmanship Applied in 1925, Getting Results in Selling in 1934, Successful Salesmanship in 1937, and Human Relations in Banking in 1941. His work was mentioned in the sermons of Lloyd Cassell Douglas, the minister and best-selling author of Magnificent Obsession and The Robe.
Professor Ivey died in Los Angeles in 1950, at the age of 60. Stella lived until 1967. They didn’t have any children, or at least any that I was able to track down. Ivey’s work outlived him; the fourth addition of Successful Salesmanship, updated by a co-author, was published in 1961.
As chance would have it, Lincoln, Nebraska, was my brother’s and my first overnight stop on our drive back to D.C. from Colorado, so I had an opportunity for a Professor Ivey pilgrimage. Or more of a mini-pilgrimage, rather. I hadn’t done enough research yet to find the building where he taught,
and a house built in 1925 now stands at the address of his Lincoln home (which I found online and subsequently lost). Besides, it was pouring, and we needed to get a move on. I did sense Professor Ivey’s presence, though, as I had breakfast in a coffee shop in the historic Haymarket district near the university.*******
I’ve decided to make reading a random book an annual tradition, so stay tuned! I can’t imagine, though, that my 1921 book could possibly be as much fun as Elements of Retail Salesmanship.
*Although “aren’t read much” doesn’t mean “aren’t read at all.” One effect of the proliferation of free public-domain e-books is that people come across century-old books at random and post reviews on Goodreads that say things like “the writing was kind of old-fashioned.”
**I set a few ground rules: no books over 400 pages, no books I was already aware of, and no books about history, because reading a 1920 book about, say, Elizabethan England seemed beside the point. In any case, Elements of Retail Salesmanship won fair and square on the first try.
***This can actually be quite entertaining, as in this online copy of William Carlos Williams’ 1917 poetry collection Al Que Quiere!:
****This was, in case you’re wondering, a necessary trip and not an irresponsible pleasure jaunt.
*****When I was Googling around for a source for this, I found this comment from me from 2019 on witness2fashions’s website: “I just came across a fascinating article in a 1922 issue of Printer’s Ink magazine, aimed at panicky corset sellers, assuring them that going corsetless is just a fad and reminding mothers to educate their daughters on the health benefits of corsets, including supporting internal organs and strengthening back muscles.” The actual Printer’s Ink article is lost in the mists of time.
******This reminded me of the time I was trying on a dress in a Cape Town boutique and the salesperson said, “That’s a stunning dress!” I was mildly flattered, the way one is by even the most transparently insincere compliments, until I heard her say to a woman who was looking at a sweater, “That’s a stunning jersey!,” and then, to a woman standing in line to buy perfume, “That’s a stunning scent!”