Birth of a Salesman
Bill Long 2/3/06
A Review of Walter A. Friedman's 2004 Book
In this breezily-written, comprehensively-presented and misnamed book, Professor Friedman, a professor of business history at Harvard Business School, has given us an engaging history of salesmanship in America. Though most of the book concentrates on the period between 1850 and 1920, someone (probably his editors) urged him to "bring the book up to date," no doubt to increase its sales appeal. Thus, the final form of the book bears witness to an allegiance to the divinity which he skillfully describes: the god of sales. The heart of his effort, and his truly outstanding writing, deals with the transition in the self-understanding and role of salesmen in our culture about 100 years ago.
Friedman organizes this 335-page book into 10 chapters, each dealing either with an era in American sales history or significant individuals who shaped our understanding of salesmanship. After an introduction which stresses the importance of the "entrepreneurs, managers, and system builders" in American sales history, he plunges in to a quaint but winsome picture of hawkers and peddlers in the 19th century. His chapters on "Selling Ulysses S. Grant" and "Forging a National Marketplace," discuss the transformation of selling through the entrance of the traveling salesman/drummer primarily in the post-Civil War period. But then he skillfully shows how the twentieth century and the desire to systematize knowledge and claim "scientific" authority for one's profession also touched the sales profession. Engaging narratives about the life of NCR founder John H. Patterson and some leading academic theoreticians (such as Arthur Dill Scott) show both the creative/personal dimension in sales and the need to have objective and scientific data about what makes products "sell." Friedman is particularly strong in showing the role that the nascent discipline of psychology played in contributing to the notion that desires are not simply fulfilled by the salesman but that they can be created by the effective salesman. Chapters on the role of sales in the Great Depression and American salesmanship today complete the book even if, by their very presence, they belie the title of the book.
Professor Friedman's book should have been a monograph on American salesmanship from about 1850-1920. The material he has on this period is meticulously researched and documented, with ample illustrations that both stimulate the mind and excite the risibilities. Indeed his footnotes in his early chapters provide for the interested reader a veritable treasure trove of practical and scholarly resources for further exploration. In addition, he should have focused exclusively on this period because it contains the problem which Professor Friedman finds so fascinating and which he carefully documents: how the concept of salesman changed in America from a rag-tag bunch of wandering hawkers and peddlers in the 1840s to a highly-regimented, professional, conservative force in American culture by 1920.
Birth of a Salesman is the best one-volume treatment of the history of salesmanship in America that I know. Liberally sprinkled with literary allusions (such as Herman Melville's timeless depiction of the "lightning-rod man" or the portrait of Willy Loman), aware of the larger cultural setting in which sales flourished, and impressive in detail as well as generalization, Friedman's book should be on the required reading list for any marketing or sales course. But the virtue of the book is also its shortcoming. Just as the reader thinks s/he is getting a grasp of an important issue (the role of John H. Patterson of National Cash Register in shaping our understanding of sales in the early 20th century), Friedman has to rush on to other topics. Indeed, his chapter on sales in the Great Depression has a sort of "ADHD"-character to it, rushing from one company to another like a frenetic juggler trying to keep all his plates spinning at the same time.
I decided to delve into many of the facts and footnotes in one chapter just to see if the great mass of precisely-told detail would hold up to more intensive scrutiny. I chose to investigate chapter 1 in some detail. One would have hoped that Harvard University Press and Friedman had been as accurate here as he apparently is elsewhere, but his persistent mistakes (noted I am sure by very few others) tended to make me think that he had bitten off too big a piece for himself in this book. Many of the mistakes are niggling and seemingly insignificant, but since Friedman no doubt prides himself on accuracy, he should be delighted that I am bringing these mistakes to his attention. Let's go in order (and only on chapter 1). On page 24 he says that the American Tract Society was founded in 1841. It wasn't. It was either 1814 (in Massachusetts) or 1825 in New York. On page 27 he speaks of the PA statute requiring peddlers to have a license if they sell "foreign" goods. He misidentifies "foreign" as "out of state" (I show here how it means out-of-country). Also on page 27 he talks about the MA hawkers and peddlers act of 1846. Such an act may have been enacted in 1846, but the important first hawker and peddler statute was from 1820. On page 28 he talks about Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, writing in 1823. The work Friedman refers to was indeed published in 1823, but Dwight died in 1817. On page 30 he speaks of Herman Melville's 1853 Putnam's article on the "lightning-rod" man, though it was published in August 1854. His description of the case at the top of p. 31 corresponds to none of the cases in his footnote (#68). Indeed, there is a typo in citing his PA case (footnote 55, page 279).
I enjoyed the book--immensely.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long