WILMINGTON, Del. - Back in the days when cornflakes were strange and "In-Er-Seal" cracker boxes triggered anxiety, when new-and-improved companies such as Kellogg and National Biscuit were forging the way into the 20th century, an obscure, doughy-faced book-peddler named David McConnell decided to ditch publishing and embrace odors.
Overnight in 1892, McConnell's New York-based Union Publishing Co. became the California Perfume Co. - a name that bore the aura, he said, of coastal blossoms - and another marketing epic began.
"My ambition was to manufacture a line of goods that would be consumed, used up, and sold through canvassing agents, direct from the factory to the consumer," McConnell later wrote, with measurably less whimsy than he used in coming up with a brand.
Renamed Avon Products in 1939 - an echo of the peaceful purity of Stratford-on-Avon, said the imaginative McConnell - the company is now the oldest continuously operating direct-sales cosmetics concern in the United States. Last month, Avon officially transferred its extensive archives of products, literature, advertising, packaging, records and photographs to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington. To mark the occasion, a small exhibit - dubbed "Avon Calling" is on view at the library.
"Avon is an important company in defining the culture of consumption," said Michael Nash, chief curator at the library. "Their products shaped values and attitudes toward consumption. And as far as I know, Avon is probably the first company that relied on women sales agents. Women going door to door in direct sales is very unusual."
Extract of Violet. Heliotrope. White Rose. Lilac. Sweet Pea. California Cold Cream. Elite Powder, for the removal of perspiration. Lavender Salts. California Witch Hazel Cream.
Women sold them all, and samples are on display at Hagley, along with early catalogs luxuriously printed in color.
While most big product manufacturers in the years before World War I worked hard and spent lavishly to forge a new kind of national marketplace, Avon adhered to its decidedly localized selling-and-distribution method of female peddlers.
And like the mail-order companies of the time, Avon found the bulk of its customers in rural and small-town America, among women seeking a bit of city luxury and sophistication.
"Avon's marketing and distribution was going against most logic at that time in terms of how to get their product out," said Katina L. Manko, an archival assistant at Hagley who is doing her doctoral dissertation on Avon. "Their system is, on the face of it, incredibly inefficient. You have one person in one town knocking on the doors she feels like knocking on. They have no way to hit a broad audience."
McConnell, Manko pointed out, had his roots in book peddling and was aware of the tainted public image borne by traveling salesmen. Avon had to overcome that image to succeed. "The peddler is dangerous," said Manko. "They are in town one day and out the next. They sold you inferior product, and there was no guarantee, which is something the California Perfume Co. tried hard to push - a 100 percent guarantee."
Kathy Peiss, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of a forthcoming study of American beauty culture, said Avon's tactics amounted to "an alternative way of getting products to the consumers."
"It relies on a one-to-one relationship, which we think of as the sales relationship before the rise of the mass market," said Peiss. "Avon was a really important source of employment for women, as well as promoting products to women. So it shows women as both producers and consumers."
As the Hagley exhibit makes clear, Avon spent at least as much time and energy recruiting, rewarding and exhorting its army of female sales agents as it did on wooing customers. Turnover of sales reps was rapid, but the total numbers climbed from 6,000 in 1900 to 10,000 in 1906 and 25,000 in 1925. (There are 450,000 Avon reps in the United States today; worldwide, the number is 2.3 million in 130 countries.)
"In the early 1900s when all this starts, it's remarkable to me that McConnell, the founder, is talking very directly about providing economic opportunities for women who do not have other options for bringing money into the household," Manko said.
"I think the company saw it as being a very flexible opportunity for women who wanted to work full time. They could earn enough money almost to live off of. If they were on their own and they worked full time, 50 hours a week, they could make enough money to provide for themselves," she said.
"Avon Calling" is on view at the Hagley Library, Buck Road East, Wilmington, Del., until Sept. 30.
The library is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 302-658-2400
Pub Date: 6/19/97