Next time you don’t-forget-your-receipt at Duane Reade, thank John Patterson, founder of the National Cash Register Company. Starting in 1884, Patterson led a campaign to put a cash register in every store across America. It wasn’t easy: Clerks feared for their jobs, and the price of new technology was high. But Patterson anticipated these objections and supplied his sales team with trendy pyramid diagrams designed to quell all fears. He even asked an engineer to raze an office complex overnight, just to show his staff that willpower can literally move buildings.
This anecdote comes from Harvard Business School historian Walter A. Friedman’s Birth of a Salesman, which should be required reading for anyone who watched The Apprentice for more than Omarosa’s spat of the week. It’s a much needed history of salesmanship in America, and a portrait of capitalism in transition. The sea change dates to around 1900, when the model of a lone peddler hawking wares door-to-door gave way to the modern-day salesman with a specialized product, defined territory, and closing lines. It’s the difference between Mark Twain’s guerrilla-marketing plan for Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs (which he published) and, decades later, Ford middle managers’ elaborate customer checklists.
Unfortunately, it’s also the difference between juicy storytelling and flat academic writing. For the deeper Friedman gets into the systematization of sales management, the duller the book becomes. While Patterson is charismatic, most of his successors are not. Midway, Birth‘s focus shifts from evangelical personalities to the marketing departments themselves, with their recycled motivational-speak. Blame it on capitalism—which here crowds out innovation with strategies carefully designed to increase productivity. No wonder we have a soft spot for Trump: He may be doing billion-dollar deals, but he has the instincts of an old-fashioned huckster.