Get The Prospect Seated … And Keep Talking”


The atmosphere changed at collection time. When the agent came back to deliver the books and pick up the money, he was told to be brisk and use the word contract freely. As the lady paid up, he departed with the exit line, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

The New York Tribune asserted in the 1870’s that “there is not a cross-road in any part of the country that is not at some time visited by the book agent.” In addition to Grand Army men, the ranks were recruited from aging clergymen and spinsters, and seasonally from schoolteachers and youths attending fresh-water colleges who wished to rub up against the world. Many obviously were in the trade only temporarily and passed on to other careers. Grant himself is said to have sold one of Washington Irving’s books after resigning from the army before the war. Another future President, Rutherford B. Hayes, canvassed in Ohio. Blaine, an almost-President, went on the road with a life of Henry Clay. Bret Harte, Jay Gould, P. T. Barnum, and Dr. S. B. Hartman, the Bible salesman who later blessed the world with Peruna, each sold books before achieving fame of his own choosing. But there always remained a cadre, a hard core of professionals, who appraised each new announcement of a subscription book and sent for the outfit, or didn’t, according to their judgment of what literature would go in the market they knew.

In addition to the memoirs and biographies of great men, the agents lugged to farm and frontier heavy compilations of territorial and state statutes, surveys of natural resources in the new western country, emigrants’ guides, family advisers on medicine and commercial law, books of etiquette, of escape and travel, adventure, and inspiration for an agricultural population on the way up in the social scale. There were, too, works of religious piety, Bible commentaries, dictionaries, and such ephemera from the literary underworld as joke books. Finally, there were expensive art books and native poets, and, in a last effulgent sunburst before the close of the nineteenth century, standard English and Continental authors—in pretentious sets, or issued serially in numbered, paper-bound parts at a modest price per installment. But the charges were stiff enough when the time came to bind them up!

About the time that the professional buffalo hunters were ranging over the Great Plains, the book agents made a killing of equally epic proportions out of local history. Regional, town, and county histories had begun to appear before the Civil War, usually the work of some dedicated local antiquarian. After the war, the Mississippi River basin in particular became a kind of Garden of Eden for commercialized localism.

A mood of retrospect and recovery was stimulated by the national observance of the Centennial of American Independence. Congress passed a resolution, dated March 13, 1876, that recommended “to the people … that they assemble in their several counties or towns … and that they cause to have delivered … an historical sketch of said county or town from its formation, and that a copy of said sketch may be filed, in print or manuscript, in the Clerk’s office of said county, and an additional copy … in the office of the Librarian of Congress.”

The orations, pamphlets, Fourth of July addresses, and the burgeoning subscription book industry all expressed a real grass roots impulse. “Local history deals with people, with folk, in a good Elizabethan and Ohioan idiom,” Stanley Pargellis, Librarian of the Newberry Library in Chicago, has pointed out. It is, he adds, “the largest and most vital part of our history as a folk and as a nation.” The Middle West was just old enough, just prosperous enough, to support a large-scale effort in this field.

The county history school of historiography got its start in New England, where the town is the significant community unit, with town plat books or wall maps made by surveyors and draftsmen. They showed boundaries, streams, farms and houses, the physical geography of the area. Distances were obtained by the odometer, a kind of clock mounted on a wheelbarrow, the prototype of the automobile speedometer. It was wheeled over the town roads and by the revolution of the wheel registered distances on a dial. The odometer itself proved to be a great advertisement. The curious Yankee would examine it, and before he knew it he had ordered a map or atlas.

By the time the scheme got to the Middle West, the map was a county project, mounted on cloth with a roller, bound with tape on the edges. Each township had its own color, and the whole was surrounded with two rows of beautiful, large lithographic views.

“Every house and farm will be shown,” the polite, well-dressed stranger had said, “with the pictures of your finest buildings surrounding the map. It will be about six feet square, with rings to hang it by, and the whole thing for only six dollars. You don’t have to pay a cent for it until it is hung in your home. As I said before, Mr. Jones. …”

In fact, the only catch to the whole beautiful idea, the salesman implied, was whether the project would actually be carried through. It seemed that the expenses of the business were enormous and that it was quite unprofitable. And while this part of the county, populated by prosperous, intelligent “white men” like present company, represented the finest flower of our farming population, there were so many Irish and Bohemians in the other sections, who of course wouldn’t patronize the work, that it might never be completed.