LET'S REMINISCE: The origins of "Avon calling"

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

In the 1880s, David H. McConnell was working as a door-to-door book salesman when he had a great idea. He noticed that the housewives he cold-called, while seldom interested in buying his encyclopedias, were thrilled with the complimentary perfume samples he offered. His idea was, “What if he were to replace books with cosmetics, recruit a sales corps of housewives, and then use their local social circles to sell his merchandise?”

It was a risky proposition. America’s once-local economy was undergoing major shifts at that time. As national production and distribution became increasingly centralized, the role of the traveling salesman, and the idea that selling was exclusively a man’s job, appeared worn out relics. McConnell sensed in the housewives he met both a desire for change and an untapped part-time labor market. He put his idea to the test, and the Avon corporation was born.

In a book entitled “Ding Dong! Avon Calling!” Katina Manko offers an in-depth study of the Avon corporation from its founding in 1892 through Avon’s break-up in 2016. Its conception was unique: in order to sell products, the company had first to “sell” itself to women as an exciting business opportunity. They would then do its on-the-ground product promotion and distribution. The book explores how McConnell’s dependence upon a female sales force led to the evolution of a woman-centered corporate culture.

Key to Avon’s initial success was convincing women—and their husbands—that sales was a respectable occupation. The stigma of commerce was lifted in part by a sense of intimacy; prospective sellers were encouraged to get their family, friends and even churches involved in the project.

Framed in this way, selling resembled a feminine “social call” more than a masculine hard sell. Avon recruitment literature walked a fine line between asking women to become entrepreneurs and assuring them they would still be able to keep up their domestic duties. It promised each prospective Avon lady a role designed not to interfere with her primary duties of caring for her home and family.

To recruit sellers, Avon sent out an all-female corps of traveling agents, each assigned a “territory” of four to six states, who acted as intermediaries between the territory’s sales force and New York executives. When the corporation began to branch out into urban areas in 1935, those women who had distinguished themselves as “general agents” were tapped to head regional sales offices.

The development of this female managerial class, endowed with an unusual degree of autonomy, built a ladder that a local contract worker might climb. And this design proved lucrative: Between 1940 and 1953, the firm’s sales force grew from 26,000 to 125,000, and its annual sales figures were multiplied by five.

A unique feature of Avon’s managerial strategy was its reliance on motivational literature to build confidence in its sales force. Avon ladies were legally defined as contract workers; they bought products directly from the company, and received a commission of 30-40% on each product sold. Company literature advertised this arrangement as bold entrepreneurship.

“Now You Are In Business for Yourself” beamed one promotional pamphlet from the 1920s. “Out to Win!” announced a print ad from 1954, featuring a smartly dressed woman standing at the corner of “Prize Avenue” and “Earning Street.”

Avon promised that a career in direct selling would give women the power to create their own wealth. Yet the average Avon Lady’s take by the 1950s fell far short of the corporation’s official rhetoric. The author reveals that an average representative’s annual sales of approximately $450, or just over $4,500 today—was barely half of the lowest earnings projection in the recruiting manual.

But times have changed: Women in the workplace today enjoy a degree of financial independence that Avon’s early saleswomen could only dream of. Yet American women continue to shoulder the bulk of unpaid home labor, 4 hours a day to a man’s 2.5. Ms. Manko’s book serves as a timely warning from the past, urging us to do better in the present.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.