A London commercial traveller in the 1880s and 1890s
Commercial travellers, like Frederick Charles Petter, had an ambiguous social standing. They were below-average earners in a peripatetic and insecure profession, but often aspired to be lower middle class in their lifestyle and the education of their children. By 1881, Charles Frederick was living with his wife and eldest two children in the recently built suburb of Brockley in Kent, just outside the London metropolitan boundary and several rungs up from the more urban Tottenham where he had been born, and was able to employ two domestic servants. By 1891, with at least nine family mouths to feed, he seems to have moved closer to the inner city, to Denmark Hill in Camberwell, another newbuild area but probably cheaper than Brockley and involving less expense in train travel if he needed to go into central London: there were cheap workmen’s tickets for regular working travellers. However, by this time he was able to afford only one person to help in the house.
A commercial traveller ‘on the road’ took samples, catalogues or pattern books of the products (tobacco, confectionary, linens, ladies’ corsetry) of a firm (such as Coats’ draperies, Wills’ tobacco, Wolsey’s underwear or McVitie’s biscuits) to shopkeepers who might place an order for the branded goods in which he travelled, perhaps making up to 45 calls a week; he (it was a very male profession) often also spent ‘wasted’ non-earning days canvassing for new business in areas off his usual territory. If he travelled in linens and drapery for firms such as Liberty’s, there would be a very busy period in the spring and autumn ahead of the new summer and winter fashions, but then very little work for the rest of the year. Travellers were white-collar workers, either self-employed and dependent on commission or employed directly by a company (a traveller employed by Wills’ could earn up to £400 a year). They defined themselves as professionals within a closed fraternity and needed to be self-confidant in selling both themselves and their goods and resilient, since much of their territory had to be covered on foot, omnibus or train in all weathers. They had a professional body, the United Kingdom Commercial Travellers Association (UKCTA), founded in 1883, which gave insurance cover against damage to goods or incapacity to work and help in legal matters, and a School in Wanstead in east London, to ‘feed clothe and educate the necessitous children of brethren “on the road”’. Travellers might have a local territory so that they came home every night, but could be away from home for a week (sometimes even a month), when they stayed in one of a dedicated network of cheap hotels catering for itinerant guests, some being ‘temperance’ establishments where no alcohol was served. This made domestic life very strained, with the burden of keeping home and raising the children on a fluctuating income falling on Marie Elizabeth and a family that grew by a new child more or less every two years from 1877 to 1890.
Thanks are due to Michael French for some of this information, drawn from his articles ‘Commercials, careers, and cultures: travelling salesmen in Britain 1890s–1920s’, History Review 58 (2), 2005, 352–77 and ‘On the road: travelling salesmen and experiences of mobility in Britain before 1939’, Journal of Transport History 31 (2), 2010, 133–50.