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Get The Prospect Seated … And Keep Talking”

June 2024
17min read

In the autumn of 1885, around harvest time, when a granger was likely to have sold his wheat, a man in a slouch hat, wearing the Grand Army badge, appeared on the piazza of almost every American home. There was nothing in his hands to suggest his errand. Touching his hat respectfully, he would say: “I called to give you an opportunity to see General Grant’s book, of which so much has been said in the papers.”

The demobilized veteran was a member of a new army. Concealed inside his coat was a prospectus, known in the profession as a “pros,” for the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant , in two volumes at $3.50 each, cash on delivery, or more, according to the binding selected. The agent knew human nature and he knew his book. He was superbly armed with sales arguments, skilled in the art of awakening interest, fanatically devoted to a basic concept of Grant’s publisher: “More orders are lost because the agent does not hang on long enough than from any other one cause.” In peace, as in war, discipline, training, the fighting spirit, won through to victory. Grant’s Memoirs made a never-to-be-forgotten splash in the world of the subscription book.

From earliest times, peddlers and chapmen—flying stationers, in the English phrase—have combed the rural areas of America to bring books, both good and bad, to the people: broadsides and almanacs, catechisms and Indian captivities, songbooks and encyclopedias.

The golden age of the book agent came with the vogue tor the bustle and the cast-iron dog on the lawn, i.e., during the thirty years alter the Civil War, a time of new wealth, new land, industrial expansion, endless inventions and novelties—including books. In the absence of the modern forms of mass selling, there was no other mechanism for marketing such specialtics outside the large cities except the peddler footing it from one door to the next. That is how American industry introduced a new pie crimper or apple peeler, a darning machine, broom holder, shawl strap, or patented farm gate. And from promoting salve or a new window catch, a man, or his “female agent” counterpart, could easily turn to canvassing for a book.

With his smooth spiel and city ways the book agent could sell you the lives of famous men, and if you wanted fame yourself he could arrange that too—for 2½¢ a word

The greatest reservoir of manpower for canvassing was the soldiers of the late war. No sooner, it seemed, had the armies of Grant and Shennan passed in review along Pennsylvania Avenue on May 23 and 24, 1865, than the ex-soldier without a job would be skirmishing through every four corners and hamlet in the land with Joseph T. Headley’s The Great Rebellion (sales: 150,000), or Greeley’s American Conflict (250,000)

But the sales campaign that was put on for Grant’s book was the promotional masterpiece of them all. A special interest attaches to this spectacular feat because Grant’s publisher was Mark Twain.

General Grant’s work was just made for the center table of the eighties, remembered for its marble top and heavy mahogany legs that writhed and curved and dripped carved grapes. Grant’s account of the war was made, too, for the holy light which filtered through the late curtains and fell upon the Bible, centered upon the parlor table and greatly in need of a worthy companion.

All the subscription books of the day were bulky, often over 500 pages in length, printed in large type, emblazoned with gold, lavishly illustrated with woodcuts, steel engravings, and curlicue tailpieces. George Ade recalled that they “did not involve the publishers in any royalty entanglement.” “Nobody really wanted these books,” continued the Indiana sage. “They were purchased because the agents knew how to sell them, and they seemed large for the price, and, besides, every well-furnished home had to keep something on the center table.”

Into this context came U. S. Grant’s two green and gold volumes. It should be said at once, as qualification of Ade’s testimony, that the people did want to read Grant, whose military biography frequently has been compared to Caesar’s Commentaries , and that a very generous author’s royalty played a conspicuous part in the publishing arrangements. The first check that Mrs. Grant received alter her husband’s death was for $200,000; she was ultimately paid between $420,000 and $450,000 by Twain’s firm.

The whole country became excited about General Grant’s memoirs. Regional or general subscription agents were set up to hire and direct the humbler gleaners. These supervisors were called into New York, and Charles L. Webster, who ran Twain’s company, fired them up with a sense of their sacred mission. The promotional effort was tremendous, But it paid off handsomely. Former President Grant thought the sales might reach 25,000. Actually, more than 350,000 sets were moved.

Ten thousand canvassers fanned out over the countryside, all carefully drilled in the principles set forth in a power-packed little manual, How to Introduce the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant , containing a groundwork of arguments to help the agent deliver a smooth and effective spiel. Go, it said, to the front door; you are selling a parlor book. Introduce yourself by name. Shake hands, if you can. Keep the “pros” concealed from view in a special pocket on the inside of your coat. The confidential instructions told the agent in rich detail exactly what to do, what to say, and how to say it. What chance had a clerk, former, or blacksmith, himself a former member of a regiment of volunteer infantry, when the comrade opened up?

“Each volume,” he would say, “will contain a facsimile of the Gold Medal presented by Congress to General Grant in 1863 in honor of his successes … the first and only medal ever presented to any man by the American Congress … this (produce ‘pros’ and explain) will be the surface size of the volumes, this (showing backs), the thickness. Each volume will contain 600 large octavo pages. Here is a fine steel portrait of the General, from a daguerreotype, taken when he was twenty-one years of age, and Second-Lieutenant in the United States Infantry. The General informs us that he cut twenty cords of wood to pay for the daguerreotype from which this portrait was taken.

“The work, you see, is copyrighted (pointing to copyright) by Ulysses S. Grant, and it is being published for his benefit. … The Table of Contents shows the plan and scope of the work. Volume I opens with a brief sketch of his ancestry. … This is a sample of the fifteen or twenty maps to be contained in the book. Here is the letter he wrote from Galena at the outbreak of the Civil War, offering bis services to his country.

“A fine steel etching … shows his birthplace. … The frontispiece of the second volume is a steel portrait of Grant as Lieutenant-General … a perfect likeness of the General as he looked at the close of the war.”

The agent then mentioned all the battles of the war fought under Grant and finally arrived at McLean’s house at Appomattox. “It was in the parlor of this house …” and so on. “There will be a facsimile of the original document … even to the yellow paper on which it was written. …” The canvasser now turned to a strip mounted on the inside of the binding that showed the cloth style, saying: “Bound in this style of binding, the work will be furnished at three fifty (Do not say dollars). Bound in full Library leather it will be furnished at four fifty per volume. … You see, General Grant owns this book himself, and the publishers simply issue it under his direction.” The half morocco was $5.50, but the full morocco was not mentioned until the name was clown on the dotted line. Then the agent shot for the really expensive editions, all the way up to the tree call at $12.50.

Leafing casually through the pages of the canvassing sample, the agent now said, “I presume it is simply a question with you as to your choice of bindings, as no American will want to have it said that he has not read General Grant’s book, a work that will descend to your children and will increase in value with every generation.” (Return to subject of bindings.) “You see the styles your neighbors are taking. Which style do you prefer? … (Do not wait for a reply to your question, but keep advancing argument after argument … Do everything quickly … above all have faith to believe you will get the order.)”

Among the Aids and Arguments contained in the Key were the answers to “Can’t afford it” and to questions about Grant’s politics (“Grant should be dear to all Americans”). A big card was the delayed payment (next December, next March). The book was sold as an investment (better than real estate), and on the need of the Grant family (pitiful). The manual said, “People … expect to hear you talk, and you must not disappoint them … keep pouring hot shot at them. …” The peripatetic bookman had every reason of self-interest to do so, for he did not get his full commission unless he met a quota of one hundred orders per thousand population. “Anyone outside the poor house,” the kit said, “can acquire the book if he wants to.”

When he sensed the moment to move in for the kill, the agent broke off and said, ”Just put your name on that line … on that line, please.” (But if the prospect is not ready, keep talking.) To teachers, read educator testimonials. To young men, quote Ben Franklin and warn all against competitors—“so-called ‘Lives of Grant.’” Get the prospect seated, in a fence corner, behind a stump, on the plow beam. Put the book right in his lap, but you turn the leaves … and keep talking. Remember Grant’s perseverance. Keep the pressure up. Avoid “the Bull Run voice, Bull Run appearance, Bull Run walk, and BULL RUN LUCK.” Notice the children, smell the flowers, and watch for that but … The agent aimed to make ten to twenty exhibitions daily in towns, eight to fifteen in the country. He was admonished to avoid controversy, keep away from saloons, learn to read men. “You can often satisfy people as to your honesty by admiring it in others.” Make your voice “similar to David’s harp,” and if you lose, retreat in good order, with colors flying: “Let your last glance be full of sunshine.”

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.

“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.

What did a county history contain? After the “corps of experienced historians” from Chicago had shuffled through local courthouse records, made transcripts of the minutes of early court sessions and other documents, and taken down the biographies of old settlers and their anecdotes of early times, the material was forwarded to the home office to be worked up. Often the manuscript was puffed out with a brief history of the United States and the Northwest Territory, short biographies of the Presidents and state governors, the text of the Constitution, a digest of state laws, general material on Indians and pioneer customs. The title pages, prefaces, and introductions saw hard service, with only the names of the counties changed where it was necessary.

The real meat of the volume was its chapters on the county’s geography, geology, flora and fauna, early settlement, its record in various wars, annals of the church, press, “bench and bar,” and long lists of local officials. Often dry reading, the county histories were illuminated, nevertheless, with occasional vivid episodes—the story of a robbery, the winter of the Big Snow, the frontier law of bees, bits of folklore, details of dress and manners. There are homely and charming touches to be found in these fat quartos: “Mr. Francis Jackson related to us that he saw at one time nine coons in one tree.” The History of Pike County, Illinois (Charles C. Chapman and Company, Chicago: 1880) contains a reference to John Hay which is delightful in its emphasis: Hay was described as “son of Dr. Hay, of Warsaw, and nephew of Milton Hay, and for some time a resident of Pittsfield,” and he “was a companion of Mr. Nicolay in the study of law in Mr. Lincoln’s office at Springfield and in being private secretary to the President. While in Pittsfield he published ‘Pike County Ballads,’ a collection of capital pieces of poetry. …” Usually the biographies appeared helter-skelter at the end of the general history of the county, or if the biographical material was to predominate, the book was published as a “portrait and biographical record.”

The books were, to some extent, works of autobiography, since the biographee supplied the account of his struggles on a printed form entitled “The Story of My Life.” One may be pretty sure of the source when it is recorded as a high point how a man from Ulster County, New York, stood on the roof of the Tremont House in Chicago and assisted in firing the first salute when Lincoln was nominated for the presidency. The nattering sketches made a statesman out of every county politician, a merchant prince out of every storekeeper, a hero of every militiaman. The “historians” spread it on thick, but the paying customers loved it. If there was sometimes snickering among their peers, there was by that time nothing to be done except face it out and live it down.

We might try on, just for size, an excerpt from the tribute paid by Chapman Brothers of Chicago to Gerhard Sander, a respectable member of the large German community of the pretty Mississippi River town of Quincy, Illinois: GERHARD SANDER . If a pleasant manner and accommodating disposition bear any relation to success in life, then the comfortable circumstances in which the subject of this sketch now finds himself can easily be explained. The gentleman is an old settler, and has been engaged in the manufacture of brick since 1875.

A man’s political views and church affiliations were staples, as were his acres, his children, and his record in the temperance movement. “The political views of Mr. Walton,” the anonymous historian would write in his orotund style, “are embodied in the principles of the Republican party, and since casting his ballot for Frémont, he has always voted with the party of his choice.” One would gladly know more about Dr. James Asbury Mitchell, of whom it is recorded, “He was a strong Union man, though when war came on he went the bond of some Southern sympathizers who were captured by General McNeil, and taken to Palmyra.” The writing was by turns annalistic and highflown. A man who kept a store was “engaged in merchandising.” A grain dealer with a taste for politics “has held several local offices of trust in the gift of the people.”

After the development of the halftone process for reproducing photographs, the cameraman replaced the lightning artist. When a photograph was lacking, the front fighters for local history got a black box out of their buggy, slipped an ingenious contrivance, widely known in mortuary circles, over the subject’s sweatstained shirt. It was made secure behind with a safety pin, and they had him to the life in “a natty cutaway coat with collar and tie attached.” Sometimes they backed the farmer up against a painted canvas drop curtain, decorated with magnificent barns, flags flying from the ridge. In the background was an elegant residence, complete with wife, windmill, and an iron deer grazing on the lawn.

The county histories have come in for a good deal of condemnation from scholars because of their weakness in interpretation, their euphuistic and infelicitous writing, their haphazard sources, and their commercial origin. Certainly few of the western volumes compare favorably with the best of the New England town histories, such as Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley or Frances Manwaring Caulkins’ History of Norwich, Connecticut: From its Possession by the Indians, to the Year 1866 . But there was often a spirit of devotion and enthusiasm which redeemed, in part at least, the clumsiness and naïveté.

Chicago was the undisputed capital of this business. In eight years, from about 1869 to 1877, the subscription publishers made $3,000,000 out of Illinois on the atlas bonanza alone. Several county history houses grossed over $1,000,000 a year between 1870 and 1890, with forty books in preparation at a time, and twenty crews in the field.

No practitioner of this school of biography was more accomplished than the historian Bancroft—not George, but Hubert Howe—who mass-produced West Coast history on the fifth floor of a San Francisco building. A solicitor named Fowler, working southern California, landed a big fish, former Governor John G. Downey, who had escaped to America from a mud house and a life of turf-cutting in Ireland. Fowler invented a fancy tale about Downey’s castle in Munster and his noble descent from King Brian Boru. The proof sheets of this biography are still extant, in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, docketed in Bancroft’s hand: “Hold till 5M is paid.”

When a friend remonstrated with Downey, the old gentleman replied, in substance:

“Well, I’m rich now. I would rather pay five thousand dollars to be lied about in this way than to leave the five thousand dollars for a lot of hungry Munsterians to fight over when I die.”

The work in which Downey’s touched-up life story appeared was Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth: Historical Character Study , in seven volumes and index (San Francisco: 1891–92). It was one of the great “mug books” of all time. The total subvention amounted to $219,225. Bancroft went to California to participate in the Gold Rush. He did. One can almost hear in imagination the smooth chatter of the Bancroft canvasser making his rounds, well drilled in Information for Agents to Assist in Selling the Works of Hubert H. Bancroft:

“It may sound to you, Mr. ———, something like exaggeration, or at least superabundance of enthusiasm, what I have said about Mr. Bancroft and his work. But I can assure you, sir, the half of the truth has not been told.”

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