Avon’s American entrepreneurs

The smiling, smartly dressed ‘Avon Lady’, with her tempting case full of cosmetics and gloved finger on the doorbell, was popularized in American television commercials in the 1950s: ‘She’s a good friend, a good neighbour; she’s in the beauty business, representing Avon.’ Ding dong! Avon Calling! became the catchphrase for the company that flourished during the USA’s postwar economic boom, and it’s the name of a fascinating new history book by Katina Manko, which I reviewed in this week’s TLS: see link here.

“Women’s patterns of entrepreneurship and labor follow uniquely gendered paths,” Manko writes, and makes a convincing argument that Avon should be judged by the historical experience and objectives of women (not men) in business. Founded in 1886, Avon was the oldest and largest continually operating direct-sales company in the world, and from its earliest days it was unique in hiring women exclusively to sell its products. The company literature stressed the respectability of a job in which women sold products to other women in their neighbourhood, so that their earning power worked for the benefit of both the family and the individual herself.

It was a formula that appealed to many women who were prevented by the marriage bar from retaining their jobs after they married, and in the early years of the twentieth century Avon was unusual in portraying women’s entrepreneurial ambitions as admirable. They included Miss Susie Robinson, who in 1931 described in the house magazine Outlook how she had sold Avon merchandise from her hospital bed following an operation. She took more than $15 from nurses, doctors, janitors, and even other patients, and used the money she earned to pay her hospital bill.

But despite praising enterprising women like Susie, Avon’s power and profits remained in the hands of its all-male senior management team for almost all of its history. The glass ceiling for women employees stayed firmly in place until the eve of the twenty-first century, when the company at last appointed its first female CEO. But as Manko observes, ‘Avon’s monumental makeover of the late twentieth century was only skin deep’ and the internet age finally brought an end to the Avon Lady’s friendly and businesslike calls.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 25 September 2021

Ding Dong! Avon Calling! The Women and Men of Avon Products, Incorporated by Katina Manko (OUP, 2021)

Image: https://tomandlorenzo.com/2020/06/ding-dong-avon-calling-vintage-ads/