- Historic Sites
Get The Prospect Seated … And Keep Talking”
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
“Mr. Brown has ordered six,” the man continued. “Many order extras to send east to be hung in public places so as to induce good men to locate in this section. The maps will return large profits,” he continued earnestly, “in this way of securing a heavy immigration to Jackson county.” He read the list of subscribers, remarked again that “this is the best township in the county in point of intelligence,” and slipped his subscription book with pencil under the farmer’s nose. “Sign right there … thank you, Sir. …”
The possibilities of the scenes arranged around the edge of the map were tapped by the next caller. He was the “viewer” who persuaded the subscriber to have an artist visit the farm and “make drawings from nature,” with such changes or embellishments, of course, as the owner might like. For instance, he could take away that woodpile, the rubbish in the back yard, put a picket fence in front instead of showing the rails that were actually there, “as you would be doing that soon anyway.”
“Put a pump in the well. We might make the barn larger, give the house a coat of paint and we can put a grass lawn in front. A few evergreen trees would look well—and there is the kind of yard you will probably have anyway in three or four years.”
The salesman, who might be typed as a “cosmopolitan Yankee,” displayed samples of other similar jobs. Then he produced a dummy of the proposed map, with most of the spaces marked “sold.” But fortunately the farmer was able to select a choice spot near a rich neighbor for only $36. He was also to receive absolutely free 25 copies of his own farm scene. Just the thing for framing and hanging in the parlor or sending to relatives back east so that they could properly appreciate the fatness of farm life in Illinois or Iowa.
Only a few days later the “sketcher” appeared at the gate. He worked for two hours with the subscriber breathing down his neck, then put away his sketch block, explaining that he would fill in the details down at the hotel. To the customer’s surprise, he requested payment and presented the contract. Sure enough, there it was, in good strong black and white: “payment to be made on completion of design, draught or sketch.”
From the wall map the atlas was evolved. It was, in essence, a map cut up into book or folio size, with one township to a page, more views of buildings, and new features—more history and an entirely new wrinkle, tabular matter giving the names of subscribers, their business or occupation, where they came from and when, plus something of their early lives and hard times. This biographical material cost the subscriber two and a half cents per word, “just to pay for typesetting.”
Thus, the atlas and farmers’ directory for Peoria County, Illinois, memorialized not only the president of the Peoria Steam Marble Works, not only the proprietor of the City Livery Stables and the local agent for Blatz Beer and the director of Spencer’s Military Band, but also devoted a full page to the Peoria Agricultural & Trotting Society, whose officials, the atlas said, were all public-spirited men anxious to make it possible for the people of Peoria County to have, and I quote, “a place where they can witness trials of speed and contests for supremacy. …”
As the biography angle was enlarged, the portrait artist had a soft snap. Portraits rose to $100, but the demand continued strong not only for a likeness of Jedediah himself, but of his wife, too, and of Susan Jane, John Thomas, Hannah, Edward, Lucy, Frank, and little Allie. As a logical extension of the idea, the Hambletonian horse went in, the Shorthorn cattle, the Poland China hogs, and the fine merino sheep. With such rich sources of inspiration, the final stroke was to get the customer to enlarge the tiny view space he had originally authorized to the panoramic scale necessary for preserving for posterity the life and good times of the Johnsons.
The economics of the game went something like this: An atlas for Peoria County, Illinois, sold 2,140 copies. The total receipts were $33,218; the costs, $15,663. Knock off 5 per cent for uncompleted contracts, and the history men were in the clear for about $15,000. Illinois showed up somewhat better than Iowa: more money, equal vanity. These works, it should be said, were not humbugs or swindles. If many of the subscribers did not need them, these maps, atlases, and county histories nevertheless often preserved information obtainable in no other place.
Incidents occurred that are not without their amusing side. One grain and stock dealer of Maquoketa, Iowa, a Mr. Blandings at heart, owned an empty city lot. He had a view of his dream house engraved for the county map, but lost his money before he could build the palace depicted by the engraver. His fellow citizens often came to view the gaping cellar excavation and meditate on the uncertainty of human affairs. High man on the sucker list was undoubtedly the wealthy farmer of Greene County, Illinois, who “took” nineteen copies of the atlas when first canvassed and subsequently bought everything offered by the biography men, the view artist, and the portraitist, including a crisply rendered drawing of his monument in the local cemetery. The boys took him for $642 all told, and left him forever confused by their rapid-fire talk of brevier type, mezzotints, and steel engravings.