Ding Dong, Avon Calling by
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(119 Stories)

Prompted By Door-to-Door Sales

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When all of her children were in school and she had more time to herself, my mother decided to get a job to earn some spending money. Never having worked outside of the home since being a factory record keeper during World War II, Mom found a job selling Avon cosmetics door-to-door, and we children teased her mercilessly about it.

Looking back, “Ding dong, Avon calling,” was an important stepping stone for my mother to gain confidence in an era in which people actually answered their doorbells.

But here’s the thing. Mom was a great salesperson. She could work magic with those tiny lipstick samples I loved to try.  She sold dusting powder, perfume, cream sachets, soaps, foundations, hair care products, and all manner of lotions in special bottles. My mother was the perfect Avon sales representative, a homemaker with some spare time and lots of friends and neighbors who welcomed her into their homes and were loyal to her. She made a decent commission on her sales and gained confidence in her ability as a salesperson.

Mom with my Dad’s father in photo taken during her Avon era

I don’t remember how long Mom’s Avon career lasted. By the time she retired, I was probably out of college, living in Chicago, and engaged to be married. But those skills she acquired selling cosmetics door-to-door transferred to her next career, selling art in a gallery she owned with a friend. She claimed to have started this business so my father could have something to do when he was forced to retire from his accounting firm. Dad was a Sunday painter and art lover, and he took Mom to countless art museums, lecturing her about the paintings and sculptures they saw. My mother had a basic understanding of the art world, but more importantly, she was a great salesperson.

Mom and her partner at the gallery

Their business, Towne Center Gallery in Southfield, Michigan, flourished in the 1970s. Dad kept the books and advised on the art purchases, many of which were on consignment. Mom and her friend sold the art to the customers. I have happy memories of visiting the gallery with my young kids when we were in town to see my parents. We even posed for this family portrait in the atrium of the building housing their gallery.

During the time she ran the gallery and sold art, I watched my mother’s confidence grow. She learned about framing and displaying art and felt like she had finally come into her own. Unfortunately, she deferred to my father’s advice and sold her interest in the business when her partner wanted to sell wearable art (AKA, jewelry and fashion scarves) to bolster their sales. In her heart, Mom was all-in on this idea and would have been great at selling these things. But Dad felt the gallery should only feature quality art, so they parted ways.

All of this brings me back to Mom’s Avon days. I was too immature at the time to understand how the skills she acquired ringing doorbells to sell cosmetics to her fellow housewives would translate to a marketable skill set later in life. When I served as PTA President in my children’s school many years later, I experienced the same phenomenon directly. Although at the time, I was also taking classes to earn a Master’s in early childhood education, I learned far more about being a school administrator from my experiences as a school volunteer.

Sometimes, you just have to go out and ring those doorbells or organize a school event to gain real life skills that you can’t learn in textbooks or college lectures. I wish my mother were alive so I could apologize to her for all of the teasing she endured from my brothers and me. Looking back, “Ding dong, Avon calling,” was an important stepping stone for my mother to gain confidence in an era in which people actually answered their doorbells.

Celebrating 75 years of Avon door-to-door sales

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Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    You’ve really nailed how women in your mom’s era could develop entrepreneurial skills, Laurie. By the way, I love the photo of your mom in that classic dress. I’m so impressed that she started an art gallery, that’s wonderful. Your story reminds me a bit of Mary Kay, which did something similar to Avon for a lot of women.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Yes, Marian, Avon and Mary Kay were similar, although I don’t think my mother had to buy her inventory back then. Women back when she was ringing doorbells had fewer opportunities than when she opened and ran the art gallery in the 1980s.

  2. Suzy says:

    I love what you did with this prompt, Laurie – nominally about Avon, but really about the skills women could develop by selling door-to-door. Sounds like Avon was great for your mother, and she was great for Avon! And then she opened an art gallery. That’s really impressive! Great story and, as always, great photos to go with it!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Back when Mom was ringing doorbells in the Detroit suburbs, people were receptive to door-to-door salespeople. I was so happy she had the opportunity to apply what she learned about sales. From cosmetics to art, she was really impressive.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful commentary on how useful sales skills can be for building confidence to be used elsewhere, Laurie. One of my dearest friend’s mother started as an Avon Lady, but moved up the ranks into a management position within the company. This was long before most women worked and kept house. Her salary was an important contribution to their household.

    Many years later, I used my theater skills as a springboard into sales and Avon corporate in NYC was a client. As you can imagine, everyone there was perfectedly groomed and coifed. This was in the early ’80s. I remember being impressed by their spacious offices in mid-town Manhattan. The company had to reinvent themselves, once women went to work, but they were quite a professional company. They were a good fit for your mother too.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I so regret having teased my mother back then. She obviously learned a lot about sales through Avon. Most of all, she was a people person, and those skills carry you far and adapt to other situations in life.

  4. Laurie, not only was your mom the perfect Avon sales rep for the reasons you mentioned, it sounds like she came by it naturally…some people just have the gift! It’s a mixture of warmth and genuinely caring about the customers as much if not more so than simply making a sale. She was making friends, and keeping them. Quite an inspiration to this sales-challenged entrepreneur…my hat’s off to her!

    I love the those Avon ads you included…I can’t help but notice all the gloves. It’s hard to imagine wearing gloves as a matter of course, isn’t it???

  5. Laurie,
    Wonderful story and insight into the lives and ambitions of the women of our mothers’ generation.

    And how wonderful that your mother ran an art gallery. I don’t know if art galleries now have shops, other than to sell postcards and exhibit catalogs, but museums shops are certainly now the best places to get quality, artistic gifts!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Dana, I always thought not selling quality “wearable art” was a mistake. It would have brought more traffic to their store and that would have helped to sell the art. My mother knew this was a good idea, but as she did for her entire marriage, she deferred to my father. Also typical of most women of our mothers’ generation.

  6. Yes, and so much more we should have asked!

  7. Why is it that we really don’t know the questions to ask until it’s too late? Loved your story and remembrances, Laurie. Love how Avon made its own contribution to women’s independence and self-esteem back in the day when these things were too often in short supply.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Yes, my friend. We have talked about these issues before. Too often, women took jobs that seemed to be beneath them at the time, but acquired important, transferable skills. Such was my mother’s years selling Avon.

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