When I was an undergraduate I took a job in the summer of 1962 selling encyclopedias door-to-door on U.S. military bases in Germany. It was on the way home from a two-week camping holiday organized under the auspices of the UN Association where we took about 25 displaced kids from their refugee camp in Austria to an idyllic spot up an precipitous track in the mountains somewhere between Leoben and Graz. The almost vertical dirt track was so awful that it crippled our van, which finally expired on the way home, and was abandoned by the roadside in northern Italy in the Quinque Terre along the Ligurian coast. We killed a few days sleeping on the beach in Riomaggiore before heading to Heidelberg where we were due to meet a highly motivated fellow student who had an in with this American encyclopedia publisher. This was going to make us enough money to pay for the entire summer.

I often claim that the public is generally innocent of any knowledge of who publishes any particular book, and this is borne out by the fact that I haven’t the faintest recollection of the name of the publisher of this set of encyclopedias, nor of the title of the set.* I know it was printed in four color throughout, and I suspect that if I saw an illustration or two today I could probably identify the set. We were expected to persuade innocent GIs, and their wives, (never speak to the wife alone was rule number 1; never leave without clinching the deal was number 2) that the future happiness of their kids depended on their caring parents providing them with this important set of books, which could be obtained by making a sequence of easy payments. We were trained in the morning and let loose on our prey after lunch to visit senior NCOs in their married quarters. I suspect we didn’t start till late afternoon in order to be sure both husband and wife would be present. The company supplied all sorts of materials showing off the wonders to be beheld by lucky owners of these books, as well as a sort of flashcard set which would guide us tyro salesmen through the process. The first (and last) family I visited were really nice — can’t remember where they hailed from but I think it was rural rather than some famous big city. As we talked I liked them more and more and began to worry about whether this investment was really one that such nice people should be making on the limited pay their bread-winner was no doubt getting: much more important to put food on the table. In the end I told them they probably shouldn’t spend that much money for encyclopedias, and skedaddled. I had to return the ton-weight of selling materials and sample books, but managed to learn the valuable life lesson that sales was not the area for which I was cut out.

It’s been years since the Fuller Brush guy last knocked on my door, but door-to-door selling lives on. A company called Southwestern Advantage hires students as independent contractors to spend the summer selling educational books, software, and college prep materials. Their main product, a set of books called Southwestern Advantage, looks very reminiscent. Of course in my day there was no computer element.


*My fellow salesman, Julian Blackwood, who has a better memory than mine, (also a better sales record) tells me, in response to a draft of this piece, that the publisher in question was Compton’s. This would be Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia and Fact Index. By then the Encyclopedia had newly been bought by Encyclopedia Britannica (in 1961). It came in 20 volumes. The first edition, published in 1922,  was entitled Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia and came in eight volumes, and was unique in its emphasis on illustration. This double-page ad for the 1962 edition is, if you click on it, frustratingly close to being readable.

Compton’s would be competing head-on with World Book, I guess. I wonder if Britannica bought them for the ability to sell door-to-door (by which I really mean, reach a less “bookish” audience), or for the library of illustrations. I’d suspect the former motivation, and wonder if they came to regret their purchase as the market wasted slowly away, even if Southwestern Advantage shows us that it’s not totally vanished.