A Brief History of D2D…

In his ‘Ancient and Medieval Marketing’, the historian Eric H Shaw wrote that door-to-door sales or ‘peddling’ was “perhaps the only substantiated type of retail marketing practice that evolved from Neolithic times to the present.” This stands to reason, given that the evolution of high street retail outlets is a comparatively recent development, following necessarily after the emergence of the towns and cities in which the first shops and marketplaces became a feature of urban living. It should not surprise anyone then that one of the earliest kinds of sales work ever undertaken by humans was ‘outbound’ selling by peddlers, travelling direct to their customers’ home addresses – or, to use the modern idiom – door to door sales. Indeed all but the most feral societies have had their peddlers and travelling salesmen, and one does not have to dig too deep to find references to the profession in the writings of Plato, and some of the other great minds of antiquity.

Vendor of tableware, 1817 Imperial Russia (OSU)

In ancient Rome, the itinerant peddler or ‘institor’ was a common sight. Indeed there are direct references to such characters in Roman literature. Ovid, for instance, in his three-book elegy ‘The Art of Love’ writes:

Institor ad dominam ueniet discinctus emacem, Expediet merces teque sedente suas.. 

A loose-robed peddler calls to your bargain-hungry lady, And pushes his wares while you sit there at home..

Indeed Jewish sources from the 3rd century CE refer to the ‘rochel’ – a purveyor of spices and perfumes who travelled around selling direct to the public in what was then Roman Palestine. And figure paintings by the artist Li Sung, who lived in late Song dynasty China (1200’s) show peddlers (‘xiaofan’) carrying around stocks of childrens’ toys, being mobbed by excited youngsters.

Then as market towns began to flourish in medieval Europe, peddlers established themselves on the fringes of the formal economy. They called directly to homes, delivering produce to the door – saving customers time travelling to and from markets or fairs. Naturally, people paid a higher price for this convenience. Peddlers filled an important niche providing services to geographically isolated districts, such as the more rural regions of Europe, thereby connecting these communities with the main trading networks. The Russian khodebshchiki plied the roads of that country’s more far-flung localities from the fifteenth right through to the nineteenth centuries, while in Germany the ‘Buckelkrämer’ or ‘Kiepenkerl’ was viewed alternately with sympathy or with contempt, depending on the period and/or region in which they operated. Carl Spitzweg’s famous painting ‘The Peddler’ (1875), which portrays a ragged itinerant dealer awkwardly traversing a fallen tree-trunk, seems to sum up in one haunting image both the physical danger of exposure to the elements which these people faced, and the sheer economic precariousness of the peddler’s profession.

The Peddler, Spitzweg 1875 (Wikipedia)

In his Principles of a Political Economy (1848) the political philosopher John Stuart Mill had written that “even before the resources of society permitted the establishment of shops, the supply of wants fell universally into the hands of itinerant dealers, the peddlers who might appear once a month, being preferred to the fair, which only returned once a year.” By the eighteenth century however, there had evolved in England different categories of peddler – the ‘coster’ or ‘custer’ who sold food to private households (anything from fresh fruit to raw fish), the ‘chapman’ who sold pamphlets and books directly to people’s homes, and a new phenomenon connected to the Industrial Revolution – the ‘Manchester men’ – men who were for the most part employed by factories or entrepreneurs to sell their products direct to the public. And indeed it was this industrial pre-eminence of the British Empire in the world of the nineteenth century which led to the more rapid proliferation and diversification of door-to-door sales as a profession and as a constituent part of the English retail economy.

Slovak Peddler, Holperl 1864 (Dorotheum, Vienna)

The profession of door-to-door selling was ultimately, however, to make its greatest contribution to society in the context of the burgeoning economy of late nineteenth century and twentieth century United States. Door-to-door salespeople were the frontiersmen, the trailblazers of the commercial world – creating, sustaining and satisfying consumer demand in areas where there were as yet no high-street retail outlets, but where nonetheless there was an urgent need for goods and supplies of various sorts. The work could at times be extremely arduous for recently arrived European immigrants in the more harsh winters of the North American continent, but for most newcomers it was richly rewarding. Abram Goodman, who had just arrived in the US with his brother in 1842, kept a diary of his travels as a door-to-door salesman which has survived to the present day – one which bears eloquent witness to the triumphs and tribulations of his time in nineteenth century America: “Not far from Lunenburg we were forced to stop on Wednesday because of the heavy snow. We sought to spend the night with a cooper, but his wife did not wish to take us in… and outside there raged the worst blizzard I have ever seen! ….we traveled beyond on Thursday and Friday, spending Saturday at Amherst and Sunday at the home of Mr Kendall in Mount Vernon. Business, thanks be to God, is satisfactory, and this week we took in more than $45…..It is hard, very hard indeed, to make a living this way. Sweat runs down my body in great drops and my back seems to be breaking, but I cannot stop; I must go on and on, however far my way lies…”

The Peddler, Bosch ca. 1500 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

Door-to-door sales in the twenty-first century is of course a far cry from Abram Goodman’s trail of blood, sweat, tears and toil through mid-1800’s rural Massachusetts. In an era where cars and public transport facilitate the rapid transit of the salesperson to and from their target sales area, and advanced methods of communication (internet-enabled cellphones and tablets) simplify both the transfer of data and contact between sales team members ‘in the field’, today’s door-to-door work is less about physical exertion and stamina, and more about the battle – on the doorstep – to convince a well-catered-to public that your product or service is the one among many that will best satisfy and meet their needs and expectations. However dated door-to-door selling may seem to the modernist cynic, there is no more attention-catching form of advertising than someone businesses can send direct to the consumer to promote to them, and familiarize them with the benefits of a new or alternative product or service. Just as the innovating retail economy of the early US had as its pioneers and frontiersmen the door-to-door salespeople of that era, so too the task of introducing  product or service innovation to the market will always require the availability of articulate and persevering people in the door-to-door sales industry who alone can give that critical momentum in the field to those new products and services which – in every generation – incrementally advance and enhance our quality of life.