Birth of a Salesman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Walter A. Friedman gives a fascinating account of the metamorphosis of the most American of professions—the salesman. The history starts when peddlers walked country roads selling items out of packs, and travels with the “drummers” of the late nineteenth century into the revolution in selling in the early twentieth century, when sales was transformed from a job of itinerant amateurs to the province of trained experts. Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America is probably most interesting in the first decades of the twentieth century, when salesmanship became a “science,” the profession developed journals (like “Salesology”) and founded trade associations, and the country saw the beginnings of “sales management” by mass-manufacturing companies like Singer, Electrolux, and Fuller Brush.

Along the way, Friedman’s history focuses on the entrepreneurs and sales managers who helped to transform the profession, from Mark Twain selling Grant’s memoirs through book canvassers in the mid-1880’s, to John H. Patterson energizing National Cash Register at the turn of the century and Henry Ford mobilizing the sales force to sell his Model T’s in the 1920’s. Friedman’s perspective is broad enough to take note of the cultural reverberations of the profession, from Bruce Barton’s best-selling The Man Nobody Knows (1925)—which portrayed Jesus Christ as a successful sales and advertising executive—through Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), and David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross (1984).

The story is not finished, of course, because there are more sales workers in the country today than ever before—about 12% of the total employed workforce—with many of them working for foreign companies.