History of Direct
Sales in America
From revolutionary times up
until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the most significant
trend in direct selling was the peddlers who plied their routes in
rural America. Depending on the geography, the peddler might have a
horse-drawn wagon or be on foot. Most common in the Appalachian
region that had limited roads and remote populations, peddlers were
an important source of products, news and even mail.
As manufacturing companies became bigger and sought to gain market
share for their products, they began hiring travelling sales
representatives. These individuals often focused on selling to
businesses, but depending on the product, they might hold
presentations wherever they could gather a crowd: a good
presentation that generated demand from the local population was
often enough to convince a local business to place an order.
Peddlers and travelling salesmen represented the two faces of direct
selling: Independent businessmen selling to individuals and company
employees selling to businesses.
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As the population increased and cities grew, it became
cost-effective to employ door-to-door salesmen. Bibles, brushes,
notions, cosmetics and patent medicines were popular items due to
their low weight and easy portability. Later items included vacuum
cleaners and encyclopaedias. Today, the only significant vestige of
door-to-door sales is girl scout cookies and other offerings
typically sold by children to raise money for their organization.
Direct Selling by mail had its roots in the major catalogue sales
companies of the 1800’s, and by the late 1950’s this form of direct
selling had moved to what is known today as “junk mail.” This became
known as “direct response marketing” and was characterized by
well-written sales copy focusing on benefits to the customer and
concluded with a strong call to action. This developed into a very
sophisticated industry that could target specific demographic groups
with specific sales messages and often predict the sales response
With the advent of the internet, many companies attempted to
translate the success of direct response marketing to the “free”
internet, which resulted in a new use for the word “spam.” Direct
response marketing techniques were then adapted to the internet in
an ethical manner using a combination of static advertising on
websites, free newsletters and email marketing directly to
Another area of direct selling was the “family and friends” model
popularized by cosmetic and household goods companies in the 1960’s.
Other companies followed this lead, among them a famous manufacturer
of plastic storage containers that pioneered the concept of a
salesperson having a “party” at their home to showcase the products
in a happy and festive atmosphere.
This model of direct selling has recently been adapted to products
that customers, usually women, would not feel comfortable buying in
public. The party atmosphere in the privacy of a friend’s home, well
lubricated with alcohol, is used to sell items such as risque
lingerie, vibrators, dildos and other sex toys. A critical part of
the decision to buy is the knowledge that friends and acquaintances
use and approve of such products.
As the products and culture change, so to does the nature of direct
selling. This short history is by no means complete, and in the
interests of brevity, we have declined to discuss entire areas of
direct selling. We have no doubt that direct selling will continue
to meet the needs of both producers and consumers well into the