If Singer agents were the officers in Singer's far-flung army, the salesmen were their foot soldiers. In the United States the Singer Company was soon the single largest employer of door-to-door salesmen; never before had so many been employed in selling a single product.
As the market for sewing machines got saturated, salesmen started expanding south and westward from the more populated Eastern Seaboard. A salesman in Texas in the 1870s worked a territory of 400,000 square miles, which he had to travel "to dispose of a machine and the same trip over to collect for it.... There are but two railroads...and the fare of not less than five cents a mile makes this about the hardest territory in the USA to work." Others targeted the Native population - as the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Osages and others received payment for their lands, "Singer salesmen were on hand to see that the money went for machines rather than fire water."
A salesman in Florida named James Willson had a remarkable influence on the Seminole Indians, who previously had worn very few clothes. When he introduced the hand-crank sewing machine, Seminole women soon adopted a new way of dressing, creating elaborate costumes from hundreds of pieces of cloth which they sewed together in unusual patterns.
The tenacity of Singer salesmen was legendary, their sales tactics sometimes underhanded. Such was the growing revulsion to these salesmen that a brownstone building in New York, which for a time served as the company's headquarters, had the legend "absolutely no canvassers and peddlers" painted on each of its front step risers. The incongruity of this was pointed out when President Bourne (1889 - 1905) hosted a convention of Singer's highest-selling canvassers; the risers were quietly repainted.
Enterprising Singer salesmen created markets where none existed, all around the globe. I remember as a child being enchanted by the stories of Singer salesmen, like eighty-year old Mr. Bustamante, to whose lapel my father pinned a gold medal for 60 years of loyal service to the company when we lived in Colombia in the early sixties. At dinner after the ceremony, Mr. Bustamante regaled us with tales of his early days with Singer. He'd load machines onto a raft and sail down the Amazon River, trading with the native people along the way, returning only when every machine was sold.
One of the characters in River of the Sun, a popular 1950s novel set in Brazil's Amazon jungle, is a hard drinking, ruthless Singer salesman named Mordecai Cobb who lives on the Amazon aboard his launch, La Cantora (the Singer), and peddles sewing machines to the native women living along the river, like "plump, bright-eyed Teresa Carolina," who "carefully oiled and polished the shining sewing machine that was her pride and joy." Cobb arrived in the Amazon to strike it rich, either through gold or oil. He found neither, and had to settle for peddling Singer machines.
By the 1860s, ambitious young men could disembark at ports anywhere in the world and hire on with the local Singer Sewing Machine Company. From there they'd transport treadle and hand-crank machines far off the beaten track, on camels in the desert, dogsleds in the Arctic, rickshaws and bullocks in Asia, and specially designed outback wagons in Australia, bringing sewing machines to the world's remotest communities where no manufactured goods had gone before.
"The photograph shows a traveling salesman, clad in the loose, flowing, priestly robe largely worn by men of the middle class in Central European Russia, explaining to a customer in the use of a Singer sewing machine."
Foreign traders in the 1870s noted admiringly that Singer's vast international organization was "second only to that of the Catholic Church." Salesmen ventured where only missionaries had gone before; their wares were usually more welcome.
Even the poorest people could purchase a sewing machine on credit, as long as two respected people in their communities would vouch for them. Singer quickly engendered tremendous customer loyalty; very few people ever defaulted on their payments.
Rogues and runaways became Singer salesmen. Frederick Creighton Wellman, a US physician, university Dean and married man, eloped to Brazil with 20 year old poet Elsie Dunn in 1912, where they lived common-law, renaming themselves Evelyn and Cyril Kay-Scott. He hired on with Singer, and was eventually promoted to auditor and then Superintendent before becoming a Brazilian rancher. Evelyn Kay-Scott wrote about their adventure in a celebrated novel, "Escapade."
American playwright Eugene O'Neil worked briefly in Argentina as a Singer salesman, until he was fired for drunkenness. "The Singer people made about 575 different types of sewing machines at the time," wrote O'Neil, "and I was supposed to learn every detail about every one. I got about as far as number ten, I guess, before they gave me up as hopeless. I had spent a good deal of my time down on the waterfront when I should have been studying bobbins and needles."
Others were more honourable. C.F. Glavin, a grain merchant from Milwaukee, speculated on grain in 1911 and was caught in a falling market, losing everything. Following bankruptcy proceedings he was forgiven most of the $200,000 he owed his creditors, but couldn't live with the shame. Scanning the world, Glavin realized there might well be a fortune to be made selling grain elevators to Argentina, which had a lot of wheat but inadequate storage facilities. He hired on as a Singer salesman in Argentina, and worked for Singer until he was able to establish a business building grain elevators. Eventually he remade his fortune, returned to the US and repaid all his creditors within 11 years.