by Gennie Truelock
“You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” – Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Being a salesman is a tough job, one that I am definitely not cut out to do, but being a late 19th– early 20th century door-to door salesman might have been much tougher. That’s the lesson I learned this week while gathering the research to write this particular From the Homestead Kitchen post. While the job of “salesman” has and continues to exist all over the globe, the form that we recognize it in today is uniquely American. The salesman as a persuader was born out of the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), a time of massive growth in production technology and manufacturing. As companies found themselves with the ability to produce products quickly and on a large scale, they needed a salesforce willing to travel around the country touting the virtues of these goods and often providing additional incentives to give those products a try.
That idea of incentives brings me to the object that started this whole look into the life of a door-to-door salesman. When I first came across the 1927 pamphlet Mary Dunbar’s Cook Book in the Museum’s collection, I thought I would be talking about who Mary Dunbar was (a real person, which the pamphlet emphatically states) and what she did for the Jewel Tea Company. Instead, I became interested in the challenges of being an early 20th century “wagon salesman” for the Jewel Tea Company and the methods they employed to make their sales.
The story of the Jewel Tea Company
In 1899, Frank Skiff decided to become his own boss. He purchased a horse, wagon, and enough goods to begin his own business of selling dry groceries door to door in Chicago, Illinois. For two years, he continued to peddle his wares just like the hundreds of other “wagon salesman” weaving around the city streets before he hit on an idea of making his business stand out from the other mobile storefronts of the time. Frank began to offer his own brand of coffee, roasted fresh every week.
Along with his coffee, he also began carrying his own mix of spices, teas, and extracts, as well as a small stock of cheaply produced housewares. In 1902, his brother-in-law Franklin Ross joined him in business and they called their new company Jewel Tea, even though coffee was their main product. Business was soon on the rise for the two men. By 1904, they expanded to servicing 12 routes. However, it was another innovation they made that really boosted the company’s popularity though the story of how it came to be may be an apocryphal one.
According to the website Chicagology:
“There were many tea companies at that time, and they all sold door-to-door, giving premium coupons with grocery purchases. When enough coupons had been saved, the customer had a choice of premium items offered [these typically took the form of a household product or decoration]. One day Mr. Ross knocked on the kitchen door of a prospective customer and had hardly stated his business when she grabbed a broom. He returned later that same day and learned that the lady had saved coupons for six months buying coffee and tea from a “wagon man” and had expected to get a rug with her coupons. However, the wagon man stopped coming around. Mr. Ross quickly offered her a premium to be left with her first order, to be paid out with a later trade.
This story varies from a broom to hot water, but the fast-thinking Mr. Ross with his idea of advancing the premium set the Jewel Tea Company apart from all other existing tea companies of the day.”
The practice of providing a premium or incentive in exchange for a first order that would later be paid off through additional purchases would eventually create some dissatisfied customers in Southern California.
Beware the Jewel Tea Man
By 1915 the Jewel Tea Company had expanded to over 850 routes throughout the Midwest and the West. However, not everyone was thrilled by the idea of the Jewel Tea salesman with his premium-filled wagon arriving on their doorstep, as can be seen in this 1916 editorial from the Los Angeles Evening Post Record.
Editorials, such as this one, which disparaged not only the quality of the premium goods that were provided by the company, but the fact that you had to keep purchasing products from the company until the premium was paid for did not stop consumers from buying from these “itinerant barkers.” Jewel Tea continued to expand, and by 1917, the Los Angeles Evening Post Record was carrying want ads for sales positions within the company.
The times they are a-changing
The company had some financial struggles during World War I and into the start of the 1920s, but by 1929 everything was righted again and it was even breaking ground on a new facility in Los Angeles, the only place outside of Chicago that the company owned property.
The plant opened on May 18, 1929, but the company soon looked to make some changes to their business model, which included phasing out the use of door-to-door salesmen. By the 1930s, the Jewel Tea Company was experimenting with adopting a grocery store model and in 1934 became known as Jewel Food Stores. By the 1940s, Jewel phased out salesman all together and introduced a mail-order option for their products by purchasing through a catalog. In the 1960s, Jewel purchased the Midwestern drug store chain Osco Drugs and according to the Jewel Osco website:
“Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Jewel constructed many Jewel Foods/Osco Drugs stores as side-by-side operations. Between 1970 and 1990, Jewel moved or expanded most of its storefronts to freestanding buildings with ample parking. By 1983, the company moved to consolidate Jewel and Osco stores together as a singular business unit under one roof. Today, the two stores present to the customer as a singular entity. Today, Jewel-Osco is a vital part of Albertsons Inc., a privately held grocery company that is proud to continue serving the Chicagoland area and beyond…”
Now, a recipe…
Although we can no longer buy the Jewel brand coffee, I thought that it would be fun to try a recipe from Mary Dunbar’s Cook Book that highlighted the beverage that started it all. Luckily, I didn’t have to search very far. The first page of recipes is about coffee and its uses in cooking and baking. After reading some distasteful suggestions, like adding an unbeaten egg white to the coffee grounds to make “a beautiful, clear (!) coffee,” I settled on the recipe for Java Custard.
Here’s how it turned out:
Simple and delicious, is how I would describe this baked custard. While we have established that I’m no salesman, I do hope that you will give the recipe a try, and if you do, let me know what you think by dropping a comment below or tagging us @homesteadmuseum.