Avon helped open business doors for women
Vol. 17, No. 13Dec. 4, 1997

Avon helped open business doors for women

The predecessor of the Avon lady was a man. D.H. McConnell, a farm boy, began his career in 1877 selling books door-to-door, giving away perfume samples as part of his sales pitch, according to Katina Manko, a graduate student in the UD Hagley Program.

Manko is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on "Avon Ladies and Fuller Brush Men: The Gendered Construction of Door-to-Door Selling, 1886-1970."

McConnell rose through the ranks of Union Publishing Co, eventually buying into the company. But what he discovered, Manko said, was that the perfumes he was creating were more successful than the book-selling business, and he officially changed name of his company to the California Perfume Co. (CPC) in 1892.

An innovative marketing manager, McConnell decided to sell perfumes and other beauty products through independent, door-to-door sales representatives. These were women selling perfumes and toiletries and later household products, like silver and furniture polish, to other women in their own hometowns.

It was novel approach in the late 19th century, giving women an opportunity to earn money, and the system took advantage of the social networks of women in small towns. (Avon did not sell to women in large cities until many years later.) Also, customers tended to trust their neighbors more than traveling salesmen, and the products were shipped promptly and were as good as they had been represented, building a reputation of reliability for CPC, Manko pointed out.

The sales representatives were recruited by traveling agents, typically unmarried or widowed women who could be away from home and on the road for extended periods of time. By 1900, 48 traveling agents had recruited and trained more than 5,500 door-to-door sales representatives, Manko said.

The strategy worked well. Although McConnell was an absentee manager, he kept in constant touch with his traveling agents and sales representatives by mail, encouraging and occasionally scolding them when their performance lagged.

"Enter upon your work joyously, without fear, and push for the result desired," the monthly newsletter exhorted.

Sales representatives proudly reported back what they were doing and how they were using their earnings, such as paying off the mortgage on the farm.

Luckily for Manko, the women entrepreneurs left records of their activities.

An old photograph shows Oregon sales representative Effie Miller, with her large picture hat, firmly pinned in place, in her 1911 Brush Runabout car that she had won from the company as the number one sales agent.

During the 1920s, Lela Eastman, whose territory was the Western United States, missed her train in a small town in Montana. Unwilling to be stuck there for the entire weekend until the next train arrived, she bought a car, charged it to the company, had it painted with flowers, kewpies and the CPC logo and, in spite of criticism from her superiors, was from then on a woman with wheels of her own.

Another agent, Louise Fogartie from South Carolina, kept a diary of her travels in Maryland and West Virginia during the 1930s. She made a point of visiting historical sites in every town and became an avid high school basketball fan, attending games wherever she went.

Avon brand products were introduced by CPC in 1928, and the company eventually became Avon Products Inc. in 1939. Although women were the foundation of the company, there were none in the upper levels of management. Cecily Selby, a New York University professor, was the first woman to serve on the board of directors in 1972, Manko said.

Avon was the forerunner of other successful businesses aimed at the home consumer, such as Tupperware and Mary Kay Cosmetics, Manko said.

World War II was a watershed event in direct selling, and it ushered in home parties as the salesplace. Avon sales representatives no longer go door to door but sell in the workplace or other settings, and now much of its business is in Third World countries, Manko said.

"Avon Calling" was a motto of the company, but calling Avon for her research was something else, Manko discovered. She placed almost 20 calls and wrote letters to the company trying to seek access to research their records. One operator was helpful though-telling her the company no longer had an archivist or a librarian. "That was a clue they once had archives, so I was encouraged," she said.

Manko took her case to Selby, who was still serving on the board of directors. She wrote to her, explaining that she wished to carry out scholarly research about Avon, and doors suddenly opened.

"Avon was generous and very helpful. They gave me an office on the 20th floor of their then-New York headquarters on 57th Street (they have since moved to Rockefeller Center) with a view overlooking Fifth Avenue. I copied old manuals, newsletters and catalogs, and they shipped all my boxes of papers back to Delaware. It was a graduate student's dream come true," Manko recalled.

As she grew to know the people at Avon, she suggested that company archives be placed in a safe, secure place where they could be cataloged and used by other scholars and historians. Michael Nash, curator of Hagley's manuscripts, traveled to New York to talk to Avon management and invited them to visit the library. This resulted in the archives becoming part of the Hagley Museum and Library collection, and led to a recent exhibition in the library lobby that presented a historical overview of Avon.

In addition to Avon ladies, Manko is interested in Fuller Brush men, but the records of the Fuller Brush Co. are far less complete than Avon, as many of the records have been destroyed over the years, Manko said. She said she hopes to travel to Nova Scotia, where Alfred Fuller began the company, to seek the early records.

Fuller began the company at the turn of the century and at first hired college boys as salesmen. The men, bringing sample brushes or other cleaning aids, came into women's homes and demonstrated to women how to do their housework more efficiently.

The company had a different approach to selling, operating more competitively like a sports contest, Manko said. Unlike the Avon ladies who worked part time, the Fuller Brush men were employees of Fuller Brush, worked full time and were expected to make their quotas.

They were rewarded and motivated by promotions and other incentives. Unlike Avon ladies, Fuller Brush men attended weekly sales meetings and touched base with their supervisors more frequently than the Avon ladies. Theirs was not money earned on the side but a regular income, she said. Although most of the sales force was male, there were some "Fullerettes" selling cosmetics.

The company is headquartered in Kansas, and like Avon, much of its business now is in Third World countries.

From January to June, Manko will be a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution where Tupperware manuscripts are housed, researching that company's approach to salesmanship.

A graduate of Bradford College, Manko worked for the Kettering Foundation for a year and then went to California where she worked in the Office of the President of the University of California and was involved in assisting in public policy research.

Her interest in women in business came from her mother who worked for the telephone company while her father ran a dairy farm in upper New York state.

Manko also is involved in another project for New Castle County's Rockwood Museum, concerning Elizabeth Bringhurst Smith, who grew up at Rockwood. Widowed and living in a castle in Ireland for many years where she also ran a farm, Smith wrote approximately 2,500 letters home to her mother and sister at Rockwood between 1886-1926. Manko is piecing together the story of her life and writing a book about her.

-Sue Swyers Moncure
Photos by Robert Cohe