Stories that connect us...

Commercial Travellers

This article was composed by Ann McGinniss and first appeared in Chronicle #15

Remember the Commercial Travellers? Mostly men, they did the rounds of the country areas selling all kinds of things in the days when it was not so convenient for country people to get to the bigger shops of the towns. There would be the Rawlie’s Man with his sample suitcases stocked with spices, flavourings, potions and lotions. The man from Electrolux with the latest in domestic gadgetry came on a regular basis, and how many bookcases proudly displayed Encyclopaedia Britannica purchased from the man at the door? Often Commercial Travellers would represent a particular firm and would call on both homes and country stores, taking orders for a later delivery.

In the days before internet ordering, the Rep. would call into businesses to take orders for cigarettes, a different Rep. for each brand, lollies – there would be the Rep for Cadburys, Hoadleys, Rowntrees and others. Then there were Reps (representatives) for all the other items stocked by country stores. You even had tyre Reps. working the service stations. It was considered your good fortune if you had a “friend” in the Rep. business who could get you something “on the cheap.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Antonyson travelled all over southern Tasmania and used to come to the Peninsula about four times a year towing a caravan stocked with an amazing array of clothing for all the family. Most of the country hotels had a room or two that were kept for the Travellers, as they were known, for they often stayed in the area overnight. Some Travellers were ‘regulars’, servicing the same areas for many years. Mrs. Marie Copping, in her journal of memories of Koonya, recollects the commercial travellers of the 1930s and 1940s.

“There was an old Indian Hawker ‘Ali Khan’ with a van affair and a big canopy covering all – he, sitting just above his horse on a seat outside his canopy – turban and all – so old and black he seemed to us. And what he had in that caravan – pins and needles, buttons, bootlaces, hair-clasps. Poor old fellow, where he got it all from you would not know. He used to stay here and there in his travels and get a meal for himself and his horse. He was about for years. Then there was Mr. Jobe – ‘old Jobe’ we called him. I think he was a traveller for Soundy’s in Hobart. They had a shop in Nubeena too – for the country people and very handy it was too, drapery and such like. Then we had Mr. Barnett. His wife had the Roseview Guest House at Port Arthur and Mr. B. was employed by Bidencopes, mens’ tailors, of Hobart. Mr. Barnett was a very dapper man, always had his tape-measure very handy to measure a customer for his suit which I might add he only bought every ten years or so – except for the young men who had no responsibilities. Mr. B. carried cloth samples as well. He was a very good salesman for Bidencopes…… Mr. Jones was a very artful gentleman who travelled on a motor bike. And then of course, as the years passed and more shopping facilities opened up on the Peninsula those travelling salesmen became almost unseen…… Then there was an era of photography. You could give your favourite ‘snap’ or studio photo to a gentleman representative from some Hobart studio and in a week or so you would receive a large and most imposing coloured ‘likeness’ (all delicately coloured and rather artificial but loved just the same). All this type of business from the travelling salesman to the enlarged photos…. All made up an important part of country life. It was not easy to get to Hobart with few cars, no day tours, as today and so one did rely, very well, on this service. P.S. And there was Mr. Luttrell too, and Mr. Coupee.”

Most children born in the 1960s – 1970s would have had their photographic portraits adorning the family living room – all done by a travelling photographer. Then Pixie Photos came into the shopping centres as families became more mobile, and another country traveller found himself out of business.

And so another era has been and gone. In these modern times, can we ever imagine the delight of a visiting traveller to the lonely farmhouse door, kids hanging over the goodies, oohing and ahing, “Buy this Mum!,”  “Can we get that, Mum,” And Mum, counting out her few shillings as a down payment and wondering how she would explain to Dad when he came home that they would hardly notice the monthly payments over the next two years!