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October 25, 2011 > History: Direct Marketing

History: Direct Marketing

When we hear the expression "direct marketing," we often think of annoying telemarketers or perhaps, catalog or online shopping. The term can probably relate back to when man started trading and bartering. In Washington Township, this kind of exchange started with peddlers who usually carried their wares in horse drawn wagons. Peddlers were reported at Mission San Jose in 1846.

Our business directories do not usually include peddlers, but Dennis Sullivan is listed as a peddler at Decoto in 1879. Bud Scott recalled that the Washington Hotel in Mission San Jose had a large hall where traveling salesmen displayed their goods. Traveling photographers were apparently popular in the 1870s because references are made to one named H. E. Dart, another "from the east taking pictures for two weeks at Washington Corners" and one whose "picture tent left for Pleasanton today."

Peddlers didn't usually make the news in the 1880s, but they were here selling their wares around the township. In August 1880, Frank the fish peddler from Newark made news when he had a serious accident. A train caught him and his wagon on the track. He was thrown some distance but escaped serious injury. The horse was not hurt, but the wagon was turned into kindling and the fish were scattered.

It's been noted that Mission San Jose residents were visited by sales people who went door to door several times a week. Mentioned are a horse drawn vehicle carrying fruits and vegetables, a fish peddler from San Jose, an Irvington man selling berries, a Chinese man from San Francisco with baskets hanging from a pole across his shoulders who came to buy produce, and a woman who sold notions, materials, and clothing.

Many residents have memories of these early business people. In his book, Wes Hammond describes "veggie trucks" that came from San Jose in the 30s. Newark residents remember Wing Sing, the Chinese man who came from San Francisco on the train to sell fish. Isola Dyer once told of her grandfather, Bartalomeo Lanfri, who raised vegetables on Vallejo St. and carried them on a horse drawn cart to Sunol to sell for a nickel a bunch.

Theo Overacker once described the vendors she remembered in Niles: "The fish man came in a car with a large horn. The 'rag man' shouted, 'rags, bottles, sacks'. The meat man was the children's favorite because he sold delicious hot dogs and occasionally gave one to the children. The iceman across from the bank was also popular because he gave the children ice, but he sold mostly coal in the winter time."

Scheduled home delivery of many items became common in the 20s and 30s. Most people remember the milkman as characterized by Cloverdale Creamery and others as well as the iceman. A bread box on the front porch meant that it would be filled with fresh bread by the likes of Harold Millard.

Residents looked forward to the less regular visits of traveling salesmen such as "The Watkins Man." It was a delight to watch him open his large case on the kitchen table and see what new products he'd brought. J.R.Watkins began selling his now-famous Red Liniment home to home to his neighbors in Minnesota in 1868 and founded the Direct Sales Industry to become the largest sales company in the world.

Watkins became famous for its liniment, baking products, Mary Kay Cosmetics, household medicines and especially for the free samples! The company continues to flourish with new products available through representatives and at retail stores such as Target, Walgreens and Whole Foods. Watkins' closest competitor was the Raleigh Company. Established by 18-year-old W. T. Raleigh in 1889, it offered four "good health products." Starting with $15, a borrowed horse and a mortgaged buggy, the business prospered, following a pattern similar to Watkins. The tradition lives to this day and continues to develop new products.

There were many tea companies in the late 1800s, but the Jewel Tea Co. was probably the best known. It began in Chicago in 1889 with one man, a horse and wagon and $700. It was named Jewel because anything considered superior was called a "jewel." It gave coupons redeemable for merchandise to set itself apart from the others. By 1917 the company had 1700 routes delivering tea, coffee, grocery items, cleaning products, linens and china. Due to the economy and changing demographics, the company ceased operation in 1981.

The Fuller Brush Co. was established in 1906 by a young entrepreneur from Nova Scotia, Alfred C. Fuller. With a very humble start, he set out to make "the best products of their kind in the world." Fuller Brush has gone from one man's fiber suitcase filled with custom-made brushes to a continually growing sales force offering over 2,000 products.

Development of the automobile and growth that brought many retail stores as well as changes in the economy did away with much of the direct sales business. However, many continue to prosper. Avon is still calling and Tupperware still has parties. Street peddlers have always existed. Today many are chefs with sophisticated menus driving state-of-the-art trucks. Websites are devoted to them and they twitter their locations - a far cry from Frank the fish peddler!

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