Have You Heard the One About the Traveling Book-Salesman?

Long before the Book of the Month Club or Amazon.com, American publishers had ways to get their books into the hands of readers. The Zinman Collection, recently acquired by the special-collections department at Van Pelt Library, contains about 2,500 sample books used by traveling book-salesmen, and thus provides a unique window on book-marketing, advertising, and popular culture in the 19th century. It is the largest collection of its kind anywhere.
   The sample books — small, selective versions of the final product — were essentially marketing tools for salesmen that included abundant illustrations and some sample chapters. The collection includes books on subjects ranging from religion to etiquette to guides for caring for farm animals — even advice for coroners on the latest embalming techniques — as well as such titles as The World’s Progress and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. The books also contained different binding types, a subscription sign-up sheet in the back, and selling tips for the salesmen. 
   “In themselves, they speak volumes on intellectual and social culture,” says Dr. Michael Ryan, the library’s director of special collections. He noted that publishers in major cities such as Philadelphia used traveling salesmen — and women — to sell their books door-to-door, while in rural areas where bookstores were scarce or non-existent, the salesmen sold the books by subscription. 
   The Zinman Collection, formed by Robert Seymour and Michael Zinman, features sample books from the 1820s through the mid-20th century. Some 1,800 of them have been catalogued by Keith Arbour, C’80, in Canvassing Books, Sample Books, and Subscription Publishers’ Ephemera, 1833-1951, in the Collection of Michael Zinman (1996). 
   The sample books add a new dimension to Penn’s resources on 19th-century American history and the history of the book. “There’s a lot of research buried in these books,” says Ryan. “The sample books function as advertisements for actual books and give us a view of what marketing techniques publishers used to target the American public. They targeted literate but not highly educated Americans.” 
   The library is planning an exhibit of the books for the Spring of 1999.

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