Canvassing Book

In the late 19th century, it was common to buy books from a door-to-door salesperson. These salesmen and saleswomen would travel around typically selling books to people in rural areas where book stores were few. The books were sold on subscription where they are ordered on the spot and delivered later. Since the books were delivered at a later date, the salesperson had to bring a sample book, or canvassing book, to show potential buyers. A canvassing book contains specimen pages from the book, examples of the available bindings, image plates, the conditions of sale, price list, and subscription leaves. The salesperson did not have a copy of the whole book because it was thought that the buyer would not purchase a copy when they have already skimmed through the entire book. This is where a good salesperson came in handy.

Subscription book publishers printed handbooks for their canvassers about how to be a good book salesperson, or book agent. The handbooks would instruct the agents on techniques of selling the book by just using the partials, how to interact with the patrons, and even who to target for sales. In regards to potential customers, one handbook states "As a general rule, it will not pay to call on the Jews or the Irish people, nor the very old, if they are illiterate, nor a very poor person, when he is said to be ignorant." (Arbour xiv) It appears that most of the agents would focus on people who were financially comfortable and could be convinced into buying a book. Subscription books appealed to people who did not necessarily read a great deal. They often interested people who may buy a book on an impulse.

Book agents were initially male. By the mid-19th century, women agents became common. According to a March 10, 1873 article in the New York Times, female agents were drawn into the canvassers' world with the false promises of the publishers ("Ambiguous Advertisements..."). Women were sent to sell books, but would have their money and sales swindled by the very people that hired them. In addition to being mistreated by their bosses, female book agents were looked down upon by other women. In the book Facts, By a Woman, one woman says about female book agents, "I never could see any use in a woman tramping around through the streets, among men of all classes, going into their office and places of business, to sell books or seek any sort of subscription; and any woman having a particle of good, moral breeding would never resort to such a conspicuous mode of gaining a livelihood. I never saw one that did have the least appearance of respectable bringing up doing it, and I can assure you, ladies, they get no encouragement or patronage from me." (page 7).

The canvassing book featured here is South Africa and the Boer-British War (1900) by J. Castell Hopkins and Murat Halstead. With this particular canvassing book, there are two bindings available. The binding illustrated on the front cover is a half binding with maroon cloth and leather corners with lettering in gold. (Front Cover Image) The binding example found on the back cover is a gray cloth cover with gold lettering and an image. (Back Cover Image) On the inside covers of each book are samples of how the spine will look with each binding. The condition of sales is located in the back of the book with the subscription leaves located below. The subscription leaves provide information about the purchaser, his/her address, amount owed, and a description of the ordered copy (i.e. German or English language, binding preference, etc.) (Image of Conditions of Sale/Subscription Leaves). The condition of sales reads:

Condition: This volume contains 500 large quarto pages, printed from new plates on special paper; about 100 illustrations, and will be sold at the following low prices:

Bound in fine English Cloth, Emblematic Design in Gold and Colors $1.75
Substantial Half Morocco $2.50
Full Morocco, Very Handsome $3.25

[fine print] Agreement: We, the subscribers on the following pages to the above-named book, hereby agree to take the number of copies set opposite our respective names, and promptly pay the specified price on delivery of the same, if equal to sample shown. Delay in Delivery shall not Invalidate this Agreement.

Notice that penciled in above the condition of sales, there is a note that this book is not published in German. From the notes on the subscription leaves, some people were attempting to purchase the book in German.

To view this item, visit the 3rd floor of McCain Library. South Africa and the Boer-British War can be found at SpColl DT1896 .H67 1900. For more information on this item, contact Jennifer Brannock at or 601.266.4347. To see more Items of the Month, click here.

Other canvassing books in McCain Library:

Happy Little Americans [and 5 other stories bound in one volume] Philadelphia, PA. International Publishing Company, c1900. (de Grumm PN6071 .C5 H37 1900)

Mother Goose [bound w/ 3 other book samples] Philadelphia, PA; Union Book and Bible House, c1905. (de Grumm PZ8.3 .M85 Uni 1905)

Further Reading:

Friedman, Walter A. Birth of a Salesman: The transformation of selling in America. Cambridge, Mass; Harvard University Press. 2004 (Cook HF5438.4 .F75 2004)

Facts, by a Woman. Oakland, CA; Pacific Press Publishing House. 1881. Book about a woman who was a book canvasser. (Spcoll HF5456 .B7 F3)

"Ambiguous Advertisements: Book Canvassing - How Canvassers are Swindled - Trials of Industrious Women" New York Times, March 10, 1873.

"Agents Wanted: Subscription Publishing in America", Online Exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania


Text by Jennifer Brannock, Special Collections Librarian