Skip to main content Accessibility help

“Slowly Becoming Sales Promotion Men?”: Negotiating the Career of the Sales Representative in Britain, 1920s–1970s

  • MIKE FRENCH (a1)


The commercial traveler, or traveling salesman, was an agent of commercialism and modernization as well as a stock character in British popular culture. To C. Wright Mills, salesmen faced particularly challenging demands to conform to managerial direction. This article examines how British salesmen negotiated their occupational identity during the twentieth century. Developments in marketing, corporate growth, and periods of war and recession all challenged salesmen’s status and autonomy. These influences prompted a lengthy and recurring debate about how best to present, defend, and justify their work and identity. New marketing techniques and management systems evolved steadily, rather than producing sudden or uniform changes in the ways in which salesmen worked. Their culture of enterprise and individualism persisted, in part as it was shared by employers and managers. The impact of new marketing methods proved greatest in confectionery, tobacco, and other consumer goods trades as sales of branded, packaged goods expanded. Even then, salesmen contributed to shaping their work and occupational identity, proving unable to establish professional credentials and dividing over whether adopting trade union methods could improve their position.



Hide All
Benson, John and Ugolini, Laura, eds. Cultures of Selling: Perspectives on Consumption and Society since 1700. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.
Benson, Susan Porter. Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890–1940. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: Norton, 1976.
Bledstein, Burton J. and Johnston, Robert D., eds. The Middling Sort: Explorations in the History of the American Middle Class. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degredation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.
Brown, Joseph. The Whistling Commercial. London: Smart and Allen, 1877.
DuGay, Paul. Consumption and Identity at Work. London: Sage, 1996.
Feinstein, Charles H. National Income, Expenditure and Output of the UK, 1855–1965; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Fitzgerald, Robert. Rowntree and the Marketing Revolution, 1862–1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Friedman, Walter. Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Gamble, Andrew. The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1994.
Gourvish, Terence R. and Tiratsoo, Nick, eds. Missionaries and Managers: American Influence on European Management Education, 1945–60. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990.
Hochschild, Arlie. The Managed Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Jackson, Peter, et al., eds. Commercial Cultures: Economies, Practices and Space. Oxford: Berg, 2000.
Jenkins, Clive and Sherman, Barrie. White-Collar Unionism: The Rebellious Salariat. London: Routledge and Kean Paul, 1979.
Jones, Geoffrey and Zeitlin, Jonathan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Business History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Laird, Pamela Walker. Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Lewis, Roy and Maude, Angus. The English Middle Classes. London: Phoenix House, 1949.
McKibbin, Ross. Classes and Cultures: England, 1918–1951. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Mills, C. Wright. White Collar: The American Middle-Classes. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Milne, Seamus. The Enemy Within: The Secret War against the Miners, 4th ed. London: Verso, 2014.
National Industrial Conference Board (NICB). Salesmen’s Turnover in Early Employment. New York: NICB, 1972.
National Industrial Conference Board (NICB). Incentive Plans for Salesmen. New York: NICB, 1970.
Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. London: Penguin, 1937.
Perkin, Harold. The rise of Professional Society: England since 1880. London: Routledge, 1989.
Phillips, Jim. Collieries, Communities and the Miners’ Strike in Scotland, 1984–1985. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Schwarzkopf, Stephan and Gries, Ernest, eds. Ernest Dichter and Motivation Research: New Perspectives on the Making of Post-War Consumer Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Spears, Timothy. One Hundred Years on the Road: The Traveling Salesman in American Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Winterton, Jonathan and Winterton, Ruth. Coal, Crisis and Conflict: The Miners’ Strike in Yorkshire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.
Zunz, Olivier. Making America Corporate, 1870–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Bailey, Peter. “Parasexuality and Glamour: The Victorian Barmaid as Cultural Prototype.” Gender and History 2 (1990): 148172.
Church, Roy. “Salesmen and the Transformation of Selling in Britain and the United States in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Economic History Review 61, no. 3 (2008): 695725.
Corley, Tony. “Consumer Marketing in Britain, 1914–1960.” Business History 29 (1987): 6583.
Fitzgerald, Robert. “Products, Firms and Consumption: Cadbury and the Development of Marketing, 1900–1939.” Business History 47, no. 4 (2005): 511531.
Fitzgerald, Robert. “Marketing and Distribution.” In The Oxford Handbook of Business History, edited by Jones, Geoffrey and Zeitlin, Jonathan, 396419. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
French, Michael. “From Commercial Traveller to Sales Representatives: The Evolution of the Sales Profession in Britain, 1930s to 1960s.” Zeitschrift fur Unternehmensgeschichtez 59, no. 2 (2014): 179195.
French, Michael. “Commercials, Careers and Cultures: Traveling Salesmen in Britain, 1890s–1930s.” Economic History Review 58, no. (2005): 269282.
French, Michael and Popp, Andrew. “‘Ambassadors of Commerce’: The Commercial Traveler in British Culture, 1800–1939.” Business History Review 82 (2008): 789814.
French, Mike. “On the Road: Traveling Salesmen and Experiences of Mobility in Britain before 1939.” Journal of Transport History 31, no. 2 (2010): 133150.
Galambos, Louis. “The Organisational Synthesis in American History.” Business History Review 44, no. 3 (1970): 272290.
Hosgood, Christopher P. “The ‘Language of Business’: Shopkeepers and the Business Community in Victorian England.” Victorian Review 17, no. 1 (1991): 3550.
Hosgood, Christopher P. “‘The Knights of the Road’: Commercial Travellers and the Culture of the Commercial Room in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England.” Victorian Studies 37 (1994): 514548.
Melling, Joseph. “Managing the White-Collar Union: Salaried Staff, Trade Union Leadership, and the Politics of Organised Labour in Postwar Britain, c1950–1968.” International Review of Social History 48 (2003): 245271.
Melling, Joseph. “Leading the White-Collar Union: Clive Jenkins, the Management of Trade-Union Officers, and the Politics of the British Labour Movement, c1968–1979.” International Review of Social History 49 (2004): 71102.
Mercer, Helen. “Retailer-Supplier Relationships before and after the Resale Prices Act, 1964: A Turning Point in British Economic History?”, Enterprise & Society 15, no. 1 (2014): 132165.
Shaw, Gareth, et al. “The Evolving Culture of Retailer Regulation and the Failure of the ‘Balfour Bill’ in Interwar Britain.” Environment and Planning A 32, no. 11 (2000): 19771989.
Scott, Peter. “Managing Door-to-Door Salesmen in Interwar Britain.” Business History Review 82, no. 4 (2008): 761788.
Trainor, R. H. “The Middle Class.” In The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, Volume III, 1840–1950, edited by Daunton, Martin, 673714. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Wrigley, Chris. “From ASSET to ASTMS: An Example of White-Collar Union Growth in the 1960s.” Historical Studies in Industrial Relations 7 (1999): 5574.
Confectionery News, 1960–1961
Confectionery and Tobacco News, 1963
On the Road, 1920–1966
Selling Today, 1967–1976
The British Salesman, 1960
The Confectioners’ Union, 1921–1955
The Drapers’ Record, 1926–1935
The Scottish Commercial Traveller, 1968–1976
Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York, Rowntree & Co archives.
Census, 1951, Scotland, volume IV, Occupations and Industries, Edinburgh, 1956.
Committee on Trade and Industry, Minutes of Evidence, 1924–1927, volume III (London, 1927), p. 1506.
Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware, Dichter Papers.
Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, MNMW, Records of M and J Wing Ltd.
Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS79, United Commercial Travellers’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland.
Mondelez International, Bournville, Cadbury’s Archives.
Staffordshire Record Office, Stafford, D5189, Evode Ltd records.
Tyne and Wear Archives, Newcastle, AS/CT1 UKCTA Newcastle branch.
University of Edinburgh Library, Centre for Research Collections, Papers of Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.
West Yorkshire Archive Services, Bradford, MSS71, UCTA Bradford branch records.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed