Avon may be a coveted account on AMC’s Mad Men, but for many mid-century housewives, Avon was a coveted career.
By the early 1960s Dawn Logan our neighborhood Avon Lady, was living out the ring-a-ding ding-American Dream.
With her Irish good looks and obvious love of life and people, it was no wonder Dawn was such a successful Avon representative. Flush with cash from all the cosmetics she sold to neighborhood suburban housewives, she was living out the post-war promise of plenty.
Americans entered the post-war world as ardent consumers .
The end of WWII left us all with no restrictions of how much happiness we could buy. The material dreams kept pumping through the culture in lavish color drenched ads, whetting our war-weary appetites..
It would be a future filled with an abundance of consumer goods. Now at your fingertips, goods that you had never seen, felt, owned, driven or tasted before. Everything was long-wearing, fast drying king-sized, the last word, working twice as fast.
Like thousands of other young marrieds in the 1950s, Robert and Dawn Logan had moved to the suburbs. It was large house in a big development so fresh off the building line and typical you could shut your eyes and see it.
Even with Uncle Sam’s assistance from the GI Bill, the Logan’s mortgage was a stretch. And waiting to fill their suburban home was a sparkling constellation of consumer goods- TVs, percolators, power tools, automatic washers, Hi-Fi’s, and station wagons to fill with all your shopping goodies.
The American Dream
It wasn’t long before the Logans were part of that new post-war American dream –owing more money than they had.
Her husband Bob’s salary of $6700 a year ran a losing race with the Logan’s free-fisted spending. When bills and bedlam got too thick, Dawn went out and played bingo at a net loss of $20 a month. “Bill called himself the built-in baby sitter,” Dawn said “But when I got up to 3 nights a week playing bingo he really put his foot down.”
Dawn fretted about taking a job for the extra money. With her stellar steno skills she’d be scooped up as a secretary in a jiff.
Sure it would help bring in much-needed income, but in her heart she knew keeping house full-time was still the number one job choice of the modern women. Between car pools, cub scouts and home decorating there weren’t enough hours in the day.
She needed a job that would accommodate the kind of flexible hours in her busy life.
That’s when the bell went off in her head…ding-dong, she would become an Avon Representative.
Avon offered a unique way for a woman to take control of her life and achieve some economic independence all while working part-time and flexible hours.
Many stars of stage and screen were featured in Avon ads in the 1940’s and 50’s including Rosalind Russell, Loretta Young, Helene Hayes, Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Stewart along with his wife. The Avon ad on the left features Barbara Bel Geddes, star of stage, screen, radio and TV. “Selecting Avon Cosmetics best for your complexion needs is so convenient…with the Avon Representative in your own home,” says charming Barbara Bel Geddes.
Besides which, Avon ran in her blood.
Selling fragrance door to door, Dawn’s own mother Selma had been an Avon sales rep since the dark days of the Depression back when Avon was still called California Perfume Company. Without a car she would walk up to 5 miles every day carrying her sample case of goodies. In 1939 the company officially became Avon and Selma, along with 26,000 other saleswomen, proudly called herself an Avon Lady.
The first “Avon Lady” was actually a man.
This uniquely female direct sales operation was established in 1886 by a 28 year old door to door salesman named David McConnel who would eventually help open the door to women.
He discovered that the rose oil perfume he was giving away with his books as an added customer incentive was actually the very reason women were buying his books. He decided to sell perfume and other beauty products through independent door to door sales representatives using women.
It was to say the least, a novel approach in the late 19th century giving women an opportunity to earn money. The face to face direct selling approach relied on a womans social skills and her reputation in the community since customers tended to trust their neighbors more than traveling salesmen.
During WWII Avon like most manufacturers, went on a war footing. They converted 50% of its production plant into manufacturing such items as paratrooper kits, insect repellents and gas mask canisters to help the war effort.
But gals on the home front still needed to keep up appearances and put their best foot forward.
Between volunteering at the local USO Canteen and the Red Cross, Selma still made her rounds carrying her Avon samples that included 8 lipstick colors, and 8 colors of rouge all in containers made of cardboard since all metal was saved for war effort.
With war over the company grew and by 1949 had 2,500 employees, 65,000 representatives and $25 million annual sales.
A Cinderella Story… Avon Calling
By the mid 1950s. Dawn believed she had found her calling in Avon. beauty was her business, and the suburban housewife her best client.
The most envied woman in the world was the mid-century American housewife…smart, yet easy going, with never you mind freedom. What gal wouldn’t want to achieve this new ideal- a Lady Clairol colorful Cold War World of carpools, cookouts, cream of mushroom soup casseroles, and catering to contented children and happy go lucky husbands.
Her life was magical this bewitchingly new American Housewife. As one advertiser explained it: “her home is her castle. Snug within it she basks in the warmth of a good mans love, glories in the laughter of children, glows with pride at every acquisition. And she’s always there.”
“Today’s Cinderella has a modern fairy godmother in the Avon Lady,” Dawn would tell her customers.
With the flick of an eyebrow pencil – the flash of a lipstick she could transform any woman and give them the assurance most women need to be completely at ease, confident in her self and her bright looks!
Spreading out those special products on a living room coffee table, she called herself “the listening ear of the community” Dawn knew from her mother the personal relationship was always the key to the success of a good Avon representative Along with the lipstick samples shaped like bullets, she dispensed advise, support and friendship
Now working part-time, Dawn had the best of both worlds the independence and extra money of a office girl and plenty time to be a mother and wife.
Times They are a Changing
But the 1970s would usher in some big changes.
By the late 1960s, happy housewives with their smiling glowing faces shining with pink pancake makeup in harmonized shades keyed to match their appliances were, like those same retro appliances, replaced by a newer model- the career girl.
Suddenly the job a generation of women had trained for was obsolete by the 1970s. Along with their bras, women-libbers threw out the American Housewife and June Cleaver got kicked to the curb.
Traditional woman’s work was no longer relevant.
The career girl exploded, knocking the married housewife off her pedestal. Along with the homemaker, the Avon Lady became obsolete as more women worked outside the home-the very place where most of the demonstrations and sales traditionally took place.
Avon suffered a decline in fortunes in the 1970s due to the changing lifestyles as many salesperson left to pursue more lucrative career opportunities.
While Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan fight it out over Avon, career girls like them would soon make housewives and the Avon Lady a throwback to an earlier age.
Copyright (©) 2013 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved
- Ding Dong…Avon Calling (envisioningtheamericandream.com)