Before it was Avon, it was the "California Perfume Company," and before it was the California Perfume Company it was Union Publishing Company. The Avon story is the story of a marketing company. While Coty ws appealing to city woman, David McConnell (1858-1938) built a perfume, cosmetics and personal care enterprise that addressed the aspirations and needs of middle class white women in rural America.
"At the turn of the century, about 80 percent of the California Perfume Company's "Depot Agents" sales women lived and sold in communities of less than 1,000 (white) population."
David McConnell, farm boy from Oswego, New York, age 19, began working for the Union Publishing Company in 1877 "selling magazines, greeting cards and book sets door-to-door." In time, he became a "General Agent," recruiting and supervising sales people. He earned $40 a week plus commission and traveled from Maine to Georgia, New York to Chicago, supervising 30 to 40 "traveling agents."
In 1886, McConnell purchased half of the Union Publishing Company for $500, from one of the owners who was moving south. In 1892, McConnell's other former employer, now his partner, had moved to California and when McConnell announced his intention to sell perfume suggested to McConnell that "I call [it] California Perfume Company, because of the great profusion of flowers in California."
While I don't have solid facts on this, it would appear that the Union Publishing Company was quite a small operation run by two partners out of New York City. To a farm boy from upstate New York no doubt recruited by an advertising notice the "company" probably seemed substantial.
When McConnell took over the Union Publishing Company, it is likely that its assets consisted of a disspirited sales force and perhaps some hard to sell, left over inventory. The true asset was probably that it existed and possessed a method of making sales and business methods that provided a solid foundation.
While McConnell may have paid cash for the first partner's share, it appears that the second partner may have been paid off, at least in part, through the (meager) cash flow of the ongoing business.
Years later, when McConnell visited Shakespeare's home at Stratford-On-Avon in England and commented how alike the region was to his own home territory of Suffern, New York, the company began to use the "Avon" name.
The Switch From Books To Perfume
Books, it appears, were always a hard sell. In a 1903 autobiography, McConnell confessed that The book business was not congenial to me, although I was, in every sense, successful in it, but there were many things that were not pleasant.
But McConnell had noticed that his female prospects had responded to perfume samples that Union had used to soften the women up for their book sales pitch. McConnell noticed that perfume was a product that was consumed so if women liked it, they would buy more of the same. This was in contrast to books, where each title was a one-time sale. (It was more like Union's magazine sales business where, if the woman liked the magazine, she might continue her subscription for years.)
Perfume, at this time in history, referred to a blend of floral fragrance with alcohol. If pure ethyl alcohol was used in the composition (rather than today's "denatured" alcohol), you could either anoint yourself with it or drink it. Other major perfumers of the day selling floral scented alcohol included Colgate in the United States and Guerlain and Houbigant in France.
McConnell himself blended all of the company's perfumes up until 1896 when he hired an experienced perfumer, "the best perfumer I could find." In all likelyhood, the "perfume" was composed simply by mixing fragrance oils (available from wholesale fragramce houses) with alcohol. We do know that, at this time, French manufacturers and wholesalers from the Grasse region were actively making sales in the United States.
In 1886, when McConnell started his project to market perfume, it is not clear what name he used on the packaging or whether the new products were offered to the salesman who had sold books for Union, or whether they were even interested in selling perfume. We don't know what tests and failures there may have been in the early months of the business. Undoubtedly there were some jolts in the transition.
The "official" history of the California Perfume Company starts with a single product and a single sales person: Mrs. Persus Foster Eames Albee (1836-1914) and the "Little Dot Perfume Set."
"Mother of the California Perfume Company"
David McConnell called her the mother of the California Perfume Company. Mrs. P.F.E. Albee of Winchester, New Hampshire, had sold books for him with Union Publishing. She was the president of the Winchester Literary Guild. It was into her capable hands that the first Little Dot perfume set was entrusted and Albee's contribution proved to be more than just a few sales.
Albee age 50 at this time is credited with showing McConnell how to build his sales network to sell perfume. California Perfume recruited women (Depot Agents) who would not have to travel but would sell in their own communities. What McConnell was now selling was a business opportunity for women women who needed money usually older, married women who could sell to other women through their network of social relations in their own communities.
Their close link to the community in which they sold gave them a credibility with their neighbors whereas the traditional traveling salesman tended to be met with more suspicion.
Other women, who, through circumstances (unmarried or widowed) could travel, became the General Agents who traveled from town to town recruiting new Depot Agents.
The genius of the system was the McConnell was able to reach an underserved segment of the population with minimal capital, overhead and operating expense. The downside was that, unlike Coty who made himself a millionaire within a year or two of launching his business in 1904 California Perfume did not see it's first $500 day until 1897 eleven years after its startup.
In his 1903 autobiography, McConnell speaks of putting quality "into the goods themselves." As for packaging, "just enough money in the package to make them respectable." This was farm boy thinking. What McConnell was missing here was a changing social trend that was already accelerating by 1900. Women's "place" in society was changing. What was "socially acceptable" for women was changing. Already, in Europe, fashionable women were beginning to smoke cigarettes. Poiret was designing comfortable dresses. Women were taking up sports ... and learning to curse.
Slowly these trends were taking hold in North America. Women like Florence Graham ("Elizabeth Arden") were leaving the farm and moving to the big cities in search of opportunity. Communications were improving between rural America and the cities. Women in rural areas were looking for glamour! McConnell finally discovered around 1915 that women would pay more for cosmetic goods in stylish packages!
From "California Perfume Company" To "Avon"
The story goes that, when visiting Shakespeare's home at Stratford-On-Avon, McConnell was taken by the way the countryside resembled that around his home in Suffern, New York. The "Avon" name stuck with him and, in 1928, the company began to use this name on their products in addition to the California Perfume Company name, now in small letters. (See example.)
In 1930, 19-year-old David McConnell, Jr., having graduated from Princeton, took over as vice president of the company. In 1939, two years after his father's death, he renamed the company "Avon."
Sales rose during the depression and again during the Second World War. Avon went public in 1946.