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History of Direct Selling

Early direct sellers – hawkers, peddlers, traders, itinerant merchants and caravans – are part of an ancient tradition that originated in man’s basic need to exchange goods and to communicate. Doorbells, catalogues and purchase orders were centuries away from the early direct seller who relied on his instincts and common sense to make a living through selling.

As he established economic ties with his neighbors, he traveled extensively despite geographical barriers. The development and use of roads and or water routes for commercial activity were pivotal points in the history of direct selling.

Early man had the option of either contending with geographical barriers like mountains and foothills, or refining the surroundings that hindered trade movements. At the outset, during a period of time called “prehistoric,” trade followed naturally-defined routes. Traffic between neighboring people of eastern Europe, for instance, was hampered by a mosaic of densely and sparsely inhabited areas covered with ridges, foothills and valley floors. These ecological niches were an impediment to commercial exchange between Northern and southern Europe.

Early traders developed easily accessible routes to facilitate land travel. Along ruggedly constructed roads treaded the early direct seller with his goods. Even before the advent of wheeled traffic, the early direct seller did not hesitate to exchange pottery, stone weapons, tools, agricultural products and raw materials with people from other lands. Barter, the direct exchange of goods for goods, was his principal means of trade.

Among the early civilizations, Egypt, Syria, Babylonia and India were actually involved in trade. Ivory and ebony were exchanged for pottery and stone vessels. Indian beads and vases, believed to have originated in remote localities, were found in Babylonia.

In Greece, the caravan trade that connected the Greek world with Asia, prospered. Everyday articles, domestic tools, metal kitchenware and ordinary clothes were exchanged. Markets, in their fundamental stages, were meeting places for customers and direct sellers. Frequently, the direct seller used the market as one of his stopping points before continuing his village-to-village journey.

Anatolia, which is presently Turkey, was an area in which direct sellers, traveling by donkey, sold cloth to people he encountered along the way. The purchase price was generally higher than at trading centers because of the length of the haul and the hazards of the expedition.

The early direct seller seized all opportunities to trade his goods when traveling. Fairs connected with religious feasts brought him to the armies stationed in the fields. Swarms of salesmen procured for the troops all the goods they needed.

The direct seller’s activities were influenced, certainly, by the cultures from which they emerged. As early as 2000 B.C., the Code of Hammurabi, a monument of Babylonian law, protected the general welfare and integrity of the Babylonian direct seller, who was then referred to as the “peddler.” The Code stated that “the peddler shall swear the oath of God” if any enemy caused him trouble in the travels. It also said that the merchant who sells the goods must be aptly compensated. Trade by land, though hindered by poor roads, continued to grow after the birth of Christ.

In the 5th century A.D., Athens was involved in a great deal of direct selling. Many producers who sold direct to the consumer without the intervention of a middleman, continued to sell their goods in this fashion, despite the growing urban population which spawned a new class of retailers. The direct seller of the 5th century either sold his wares about the street or exhibited them for sale on stalls and in shops. Others traveled from place to place, following armies on the march. They visited great festivals and fairs as well, and sold from village to village.

The 10th century marked the beginning of worldwide economic expansion. As commercial opportunities grew, so did the opportunities for the direct seller. He was the native merchant in Western Europe, for example, during the Middle Ages, and he played an important role in bringing about the perpetuation of trade during the Commercial Revolution of the 10th to 13th centuries. He witnessed great progress in road building at this time. In France, the direct seller contributed to the growth of trade by bringing “novelties” from the large cities to small villages. Many of the more prosperous French towns were graces with the opportunity to buy woolen and silk belts, bonnets, brass rings, thimbles and writing tablets from the direct seller.

The traveling merchant was cited in mythology as a notable direct seller. Ulysses, the mythic hero, once posed as a merchant. The little tale, repeated by many ancient authors in many different forms, makes reference to Ulysses as a traveling merchant. The antedates the American peddler by almost 3,000 years. At a palace, Ulysses offered ornaments for sale that he had placed on his arm. The king’s daughters were “engrossed with the contents of the merchant’s pack.”

In the 17th century, “The Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare, was inspired by a girl peddling flowers. This flower girl was reminiscent of the direct seller of the Middle Ages who walked tirelessly through the village streets displaying his goods.

In early America, for instance, the renowned Yankee Peddler walked to his customers while those of grander stature rode horseback. The prosperous sellers rode in wagons or carriages.

As emigrants began to filter into early American territories in the 18th and 19th centuries, many became direct sellers. Like their predecessors, these direct sellers began their treks on trails marked by nature. Good roads developed slowly on the frontiers of early America. Early Indian trails evolved into major roads and eventually turnpikes. As the roadways expanded, the Yankee Peddler’s influence on trade was reinforced.

Yankee notions consisted of items like pins, needles, hooks, scissors, combs, small hardware and perfume. The Yankee Peddler carried his goods in oblong tin trunks slung on his back by a harness or a leather strap. Sometimes he used large wagons. He traveled by land primarily until rivers and lakes became connected by canals. Then, direct selling in early America branched out to the frontiers of the West and the Canadian territory in the north. The Yankee Peddlers, as did the Phoenicians, preferred to trade via water routes.

Nearly every culture shares a heritage of direct selling. The direct seller of tropical Africa walked the streets of cities and towns crying out his wares. Some cycled from village to village. “Colporteurs” of France sold flowers directly to their customers and used purchase orders as early as the 14th century. The Chinese direct seller sold, bought, exchanged, mended, entertained and catered to personal wants of man in almost every conceivable way.

European gypsies, after emigrating to America, practiced their native trade of direct selling in their new land. They brought the direct selling tradition from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Hungary to Colonial America and took to tinkering, peddling and horse dealing.

The selling tradition continued to thrive through the end of the 19th century and into the 1900s. The advent of the home party in the 1950s added a new dimension to direct selling as customers gathered at the home of hostesses to see product demonstrations and socialize with friends. Direct selling offered opportunities for many who had previously run into barriers because of age, education or sex. The growth of the industry allowed many to become successful where no opportunity has existed before.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the customer still benefits from a personal and convenient way of purchasing products. The Internet has become an important element of direct selling – essentially giving each direct seller a worldwide customer base. Direct sellers have been empowered by use of the Internet and find direct selling to be a rewarding way to improve their quality of life, reach specific earnings objectives, facilitate social contact and sell products they love.

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Fast Facts

  • 77% of sellers have been with their company 1+ years
  • 80% of sellers say direct selling meets or exceeds their expectations
  • 85% of sellers report a good, very good or excellent experience with direct selling
  • 74% of US adults have purchased products from a direct seller
  • 15.8 million people in the U.S. are involved in direct selling
  • $28.56 billion in total US sales
  • $117 billion sales worldwide