Those Successful Women Drummers: 1908

Successful Women Drummers and How They Succeed

By Frances Van Etten

Women drummers are becoming more plentiful every day, and they are successful, too. One has but to go to the firms employing these “ladies of the grip” to learn that their sales are as large as, if not larger than, those of the sterner sex. This field for women is comparatively new, but already so many bright and clever young women have entered into it who have met with phenomenal success that it will not be long until they will stand equal chances with the “knights,” who have for so long monopolized this particularly well-paying business. And we have not far to go in looking for a reason for all this. In the first place, a woman is bound to gain recognition simply because she is a woman; for it is the hardest thing in the world for a man to refuse a request made by a woman, especially if the woman be young and pretty and, of course, clever. So, before he knows what he is doing, he is placing an order.

In many branches, such as in selling corsets, ladies’ waists and underwear, perfumery, millinery, toilet articles, and dozens of other things, a woman is better adapted to the business of selling than is a man, and she is particularly successful along these lines. A successful woman drummer is always in her element, for she is sure of herself and knows what she can do; it is second nature for her to dilate and expand on the salient features of such of these articles as she may be selling. As a rule, these women are quick at repartee, some of them good story-tellers, brimming over with original good humor, and have a thorough knowledge of men’s weaknesses.

“Oh, yes; they have come to stay all right,” said a drummer the other day, speaking of the women in the business; “and it will not be very long before the many men holding these lucrative positions will be forced to look for other employment. Why, we men will not be in it in a short time. I know personally twenty women who are making more sales and drawing better salaries and commissions than I am, and I have been in the business fifteen or twenty years, and am traveling for one of the largest silk houses in the country. They are smart, far-sighted, and quick to read human nature. As a rule, they are all ladylike, and some of them mighty pretty, too, and unusually attractive mentally. Just to show you how they are taking the trade from us fellows, I will relate a personal experience. About two months before Christmas I started out with a full line of holiday goods. A week later I struck Cleveland, where we had a number of first-class customers. Well, I started in leisurely, expecting to pile up orders without much effort, as I had my trade established; but when I reached the store of my first customer I was dumfounded to hear him accost me in this manner:

“‘Well, Mr. Jones, you are too late this time.’

“‘Why, what do you mean?’ I questioned nervously. ‘Didn’t I write you just when I would be here?’

“‘Yes, I know you did; but a good-looking young woman has already been here with a splendid line of goods and at much more reasonable figures, and was so sweet and amiable besides, I just gave her the whole order for her firm.’

“‘Surely you do not mean you gave her the entire order?’ I still questioned.

“‘Yes, I did; I gave her everything she wanted.’

“Well, I felt mad enough to jump right through that man, and I started out of that town in a hurry, with a new determination in the line of selling goods; surely I would head her off at the next town and get my order as usual. To my great surprise and disgust, this ‘sweet and amiable’ woman drummer had been there and gobbled up that order, too. I had almost reached an end to my patience and felt like swearing, but I knew this would not be good business policy, so I smiled and asked my customer to wait for me next time, and hurried off to number three customer, with a good many grave doubts as to what I might expect. The amount of the story is that this woman was first everywhere and had sold her goods to more than two-thirds of my customers in Cleveland. Suffice it to say, I left there in disgust and humiliation. At Columbus I found she had played me the same trick, and the same cruel fate awaited me in Cincinnati, and a little more of the same in Indianapolis.

“When I left Indiana I was thoroughly disheartened, but hoped for better luck in Chicago and farther West. I had never before failed to place orders with all of these firms. Naturally I began to be personally interested in this paragon of petticoats, cleverness, and business tact, although I had never seen her. She must be ‘sweet and amiable’ if she could take from me my trade of fifteen years’ standing, and I thought it high time to know more about her methods of doing business. I made her acquaintance in Denver, whither I had followed her on a fool’s errand, as she had all of my orders closely pressed into her order book. I had not talked with her ten minutes until I acknowledged to myself that she was the cleverest, most diplomatic woman I had ever met, either in business or out, and if I hadn’t gotten out of that town just when I did I should have proposed to her, and she would now be Mrs. John Jones instead of Miss Frances Williams, the ‘sweet and amiable.’

“That was her first trip, I afterward learned, and she had been out but three weeks. Her house had wired her to await further instructions from them, as she had piled up the orders faster than they could fill them. I told her she had played smash with my trade, and I might have expected the answer she gave me. ‘It is the age we live in,’ she said. ‘Get all you can.’ After once getting ahead of her my trip was a fairly good one, but if she took a cent she took fifty thousand dollars right out of my firm’s pockets. But my experience in this line is not the only one, for nearly all of the drummers are running against the same thing; every day they find new obstacles of this nature to contend with.”

“I know a young woman, by the name of Lincoln, who sells hats (and so do I when I can keep ahead of her),” said another drummer in relating his experience; “but let me drop in behind her, and it’s ‘all day’ with me, for when she strikes a town she carries away every order in it. But in this she has the advantage of me; she is strikingly pretty for a milliner’s model, and tries on every shape she has for sale among her samples, and she places them all on her pretty head in such a coquettish and graceful way that it shows off the beauties of the hats to perfection. Now, I would look pretty trying on ladies’ hats, wouldn’t I? There seems to be only one alternative, and that is to take to selling men’s hats in self-defense. I will never again be a success selling ladies’ hats, for a man with a face like mine, fringed with red whiskers and red hair and big ears protruding, can never look irresistible in a lady’s hat.”

In the face of all his troubles, the drummer laughed convulsively and continued: “Yes; she has got the drop on me, and sells fully as many more hats in the course of a year than I do. And this is the reputation all of these ‘skirted knights of the grip’ have established with the firms they represent. They are, as a rule, strong, healthy, clear-headed, and in every way belong to the twentieth century. Some of them do exactly as men do—visit the merchants personally and solicit orders. Others rent a suite of rooms in the best hotel in which to display goods, notify their customers, and await them there. And there is still another class of these drummers who cater to individual custom, and these, too, are very successful. Quite a number of New York women work in this manner. There is one young woman, Mary Fergesson, who travels for one of the largest dry-goods houses in Cincinnati. She is of Irish parentage and has the beautiful eyes and complexion we so often see among the Irish-American girls. Her figure is simply perfection, and all of the made-up garments among her samples are made to her form, so that they fit like the paper on the wall, and when she once dons them she shows them to the best advantage, and she seldom fails to get an order. She told me she was a graduate of one of the leading colleges for women in America, and has since studied every art that might be of benefit to her in her business. She has had many offers of marriage from some of her best customers, but she is happy and content to live on her salary of $4,000 a year, and commissions which often run it up to $5,000, besides all of her expenses. And why should she not be? There are very few men who can earn that salary as easily as she does.”

And the drummer subsided into sorrowful reflections. “Miss Fergesson’s trade is worth $300,000 a year to her house, and this is enormous, when it is taken into consideration that it is for only six months in the year that these goods can be sold. I have known several women,” he continued, “who have been driven to the business through force of circumstances. Here is one. Tom Huntington is one of the best-known traveling men in Massachusetts. He is a jolly fellow and knows every shoe manufacturer and dealer throughout the New England States. In many cities in which he sold goods in his palmy days he was always elaborately entertained by one or another of his customers. This was the case one trip when he was taken very ill. The customer with whom he was stopping was a friend of long standing, and when Tom learned that he could not proceed on his trip, he wished to be taken to his hotel, but his friend objected and Tom was persuaded to remain as a guest; but he fumed and fretted so over not being able to continue on his trip that it worried his friend a great deal.

“The latter had a daughter who was well educated, but, owing to business adversities, had gone into the store to help her father. One morning she suggested that she take Tom’s samples and go to the next town and see what she could do. Of course objections were raised, but she was so persistent that she finally obtained permission from Tom and her father. Well, she started, but did not stop at that town, but went on and on, finishing up the entire route, and she fairly set the house crazy with orders. Every man on the line took his credit limit, and she sold more goods than a faker at a country fair. Then she went home to her father and her sick friend. She was so successful that she was forthwith given a lucrative position with the firm. Tom was a confirmed old bachelor and never even thought of marriage, but this opened his eyes as to the true worth of women, and before he knew it he was head over heels in love with the fair drummeress, and some time later they were married. Tom is now a large stockholder in the firm, but always speaks with pride of the little woman who so bravely helped him out when he couldn’t help himself. And as for Celie (as Celie Pitts was her name), she says blushingly that it was real, true love for Tom which made her take his samples that morning and start out on that never-to-be-forgotten trip. Yes; that’s the way it goes—men never did fully appreciate women,” and here the brave story-teller relapsed into a benedict’s reverie.

One of our most successful drummers is Mrs. Atwood, of Mount Vernon. For years she solicited orders for corsets from door to door. Her success was phenomenal, beyond the wildest expectations of the firm she worked for, and they could not comprehend her extraordinary ability. She is now a wholesale representative for this same firm of corset manufacturers, and commands a salary of $5,000 yearly. She told me that she actually surprised herself when, on her first trip through Massachusetts and Connecticut, she began to pile up immense orders. The firm asserts that she is worth more to the business than all the rest of the drummers combined. Mrs. Atwood is as pretty as she is clever, which is saying a good deal.

Another well-known woman drummer is Mrs. Henry. Her husband formerly traveled for an underwear house. He died, leaving her with a large family to support, and it occurred to her that she might take up her husband’s business. She accordingly went to the firm and asked for the position. They demurred at first, fearing to trust a woman to handle this kind of goods; but finally, through sympathy and a desire to help the wife of one who had so long and faithfully served them, they consented to give her a trial. Her success was striking. Each mail brought fresh evidence of it, and the result is she is now a confidential member of the firm, and she only assumes the role of “drummer” when she feels like it. She makes sales the quickest and gets out of town the liveliest of any woman ever heard of. Once, while in Chicago, she had but eight minutes in which to catch her train. She put on her traveling gown, paid her bill, telephoned for a carriage, and drove to the depot, six blocks away. She checked her luggage in the meantime, paid for excess baggage, and caught her train. How many men or women could do half this amount of work in twice the time and not suffer from nervous exhaustion for a fortnight? Mrs. H. is an improved “twentieth-century” girl, and she doesn’t smoke cigarettes or aspire to voting.

Another bright little drummer woman under discussion at the same time was Miss Sofy Lansdon, of Philadelphia. She almost monopolizes the trade of her territory in fruit extracts, flavoring, and spices, and her trade is enormous. She touches none of the small towns whatever, only the largest cities east of the Mississippi River, and visits these towns seven or eight times a year. She does not spend on an average more than two weeks at home during the entire year. She is but twenty-five years of age and receives a salary of $3,500 a year and all of her expenses. One young woman sells coffin trimmings for one of the large silver manufacturers in Connecticut. Her success has been truly wonderful, the house often being obliged to call her in during the year, owing to the inability to fill her orders promptly. Another woman sells coffins, and one of her “knight” rivals says she sells so many that the undertakers have to make kindling wood of them to get their stock reduced, people don’t die fast enough to keep up the demand. Her house allows her ample money for expenses and pays a liberal salary besides.

Boston furnishes its quota of petticoated drummers, and they, with due dignity, use slang and smoke a little out of business hours, just as their brothers do. One fascinating little maid of about twenty-three summers, known among the fraternity, travels for a large wholesale dry-goods house, and her trade is worth $500,000 to her house yearly. She carries a dozen large trunks and draws a salary of nearly half as many thousands per year. She is not especially pretty, but bright and clever, with the dogged determination which wins out every time. Mrs. Flora Lee, of New York, travels for a California silk hose house and does a tremendous business, much better than men in the same profession. She supports a husband in ill health, a large family of children, and a goodly number of needy relatives, and lays aside a few hundred ducats each year for the inevitable “rainy day.”

Frank Leslie’s Weekly 13 August 1908

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: What can one add to such an encomium? It was kind of the various drummers to concede, albeit grudgingly, that the success of the lady drummers was due as much to their mental acuity, as to the use of their feminine wiles. Mrs Daffodil was both interested and appalled to note the blend of admiration, condescension, and envy for these “ladies of the grip,” (a grip was the traditional salesman’s sample case) perhaps reflecting the fair-minded gentlemen one sometimes finds in the States, who, although disadvantaged by a competitor’s tricks, still can admire their methods.  As might be expected, “The Female Drummer” was the theme of several comic stage entertainments.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



2 thoughts on “Those Successful Women Drummers: 1908

  1. Pingback: Those Successful Women Drummers: 1908 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses | Rogues & Vagabonds

  2. Pingback: Second-hand Silks: 1900 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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