Read CHAPTER XXIX of Twenty Years of Hus'ling , free online book, by J. P. Johnston, on


As my goods had arrived at Elkhart, I started out immediately, selling from a trunk, and met with splendid success. I concluded to make a trip north, through the lumber country. As my facilities were going to be poor for hiring livery teams in the majority of those towns, with which to drive out upon the streets to make a sale, I began trying to invent something to take with me on which to put my trunks when selling.

One day I saw a gentleman pushing a two-wheeled cart, and it occurred to me that I could put end-boards on it, and after placing a trunk on each end I could stand up very nicely in the center, which would bring me at just about the proper height above my audience.

Acting accordingly, I bought the cart, and after having the end-boards put on and a standard made to fasten at the rear end of the box to keep the thing from tipping backward, I bought another trunk and made “a pitch” with it.

It was just the thing. I could give the baggage-men on the trains from twenty-five to fifty cents each time I made a trip and when I arrived at my destination it would be thrown off with my trunks. I was thereafter troubled no more with the annoyance of procuring a suitable conveyance to sell from.

I traveled through the lumber country in Michigan and very soon remitted my new friend, Doctor Ingraham, the full amount of my indebtedness, and explained to him my new plan which was saving me lots of money in livery hire.

His reply, acknowledging the receipt of the money, did me more good than the making of a small fortune would have done. He assured me that if I ever needed assistance I could always depend on him, as he liked a good “hus’ler” and liked to favor them all he could, when he knew they were square.

My wife joined me a few weeks later, leaving little Frankie with my mother. She traveled with me all summer and business kept fairly good. We continued on till fall, when she returned to Ohio and I went South to the climate my mother had previously recommended as adapted to straw hats and linen dusters.

I remained there during the winter, meeting with fair success, and returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I remained a few weeks.

On May first my wife met me there, when we started on a trip to the Lake Superior country, visiting all the mining towns and meeting with unusually good success.

During the entire trip I paid all our traveling expenses with the sale of needles. This I managed by employing four small boys each day in every town to peddle them for me. I put the needles up in twenty-five cent packages, and gave each boy five cents commission per package on his sales, and always made it a point to select not more than one boy from any particular neighborhood or locality, and instructed him to call on every relative and neighbor he had, and if possible make a sale; and for every extra day I remained in town I would employ a new set of boys. In this way I managed to reach almost every house in every town I visited, and although my time was almost wholly occupied in keeping my auction stock in shape, I was able to manage this little scheme so as to net me a regular profit of from three to ten dollars per day.

I still kept my two-wheeled cart, which I could hardly have dispensed with in a country where horses and carriages were scarce. We pushed our way toward the north, with but few incidents worthy of mention.

At Sault St. Marie we were obliged to remain five days before getting a boat to Marquette, and the first night I opened my sale there was called upon by an officer who demanded a State license. This was the first time I had ever been asked for State license, and the first intimation I had ever had that there was a law requiring it. But as Governor Crosswell and staff were then visiting the town and were at that moment sitting on the porch of the hotel witnessing my sale, it instantly occurred to me that the gentleman was making himself over-officious, with a view to making a favorable impression upon the State officials.

And as he showed considerable awkwardness in demanding a license by inquiring if I had State license to sell, I quickly “sized him up” and said:

“No sir, I have no license to sell, but I have soap and fine tooth combs for sale, and the Lord knows you need them more than you do a license.”

He appeared considerably offended and displaying his star said:

“I demand your license, sir!”

“Do you understand the laws regarding your duty as an officer?”

“I think I do, sir.”

“Then, sir, you know you have no right, under the law, to ask me for a license. Your only course is to make inquiries of the Secretary of State, and as that official is sitting right there on the porch, not more than twenty feet from here, I’ll refer you to him; but unless you are prepared to pay damages don’t you interrupt me again, for I want you to distinctly understand that my license entitles me to the privilege of doing all the talking there is done here to-night, and I propose to do it. If you have anything to say, you must go outside the corporation.”

I resumed business immediately, when I heard the officer say (as he passed out, amid the hisses and laughter of my audience):

“I’ll see a lawyer about this.”

The next day I interviewed the Governor and the State Secretary and Treasurer, and was informed that there was a law requiring the payment of fifteen dollars per annum for State license.

I prevailed upon them to allow me to pay the amount to them and receive a receipt for it to show I had acted in good faith, and they were to forward my license to me at Marquette.

The next night, just as I had gotten nicely started with my sale, the same officer came up again and demanded my license, saying he had spent some time with a good lawyer in looking up the law, and he knew it was his duty to demand a license of me direct. I said:

“Well, if you’ll jump up here and hand out these boxes of soap, so as not to interfere with my sale, I’ll go inside and get my license.”

He agreed, and climbed into the cart, when I stepped back in the crowd and began urging every one about me to patronize him as much as possible, and explained to them that I intended to stay away and let him worry it out till he got tired. He made several sales and then began to look anxious and silly. I still kept in the background and he sent a boy into the hotel to learn my whereabouts. The lad returned with the information that I had not been there since I opened my sale.

After the crowd had laughed at him and the small boys had “guyed” him till he was ready to quit, I stepped up briskly and said:

“Mister, have you got either State or city license to act as an auctioneer, or to hawk goods upon the street at public sale?”

He said he didn’t need any.

“Very well, sir,” I said as I climbed in the cart and forced him out, “as this is America, where one man’s rights are as good as another’s, I guess I can get along without license if you can.”

The crowd laughed again and he stepped off without molesting me further. The only satisfaction I experienced was that of beating him at his own game, and I had gotten rid of him without having to show up my receipt.

When it was given to me by one of the State officials, he remarked that while he didn’t think I would be likely to get into any difficulty so long as I could show it up, he was certain that by law I had no authority to sell till I had procured the license. I therefore thought best to avoid showing my receipt till the very last resort. I made several other sales there, but was not molested again.

Our next town was Marquette, where our success was far beyond our expectation. I remember the first night I sold there, just as I had started in and was having a big run, a tall, slim man with a very intelligent face and a large, red nose, but rather roughly dressed, came rushing through the crowd, swearing at the top of his voice and calling me all manner of names. I shouted at the very top of my voice:

“Stop, sir! Stop right where you are!” And as he obeyed me I said:

“Don’t you advance another step, sir! If you open your mouth again I’ll have you arrested!”

“Hic hic what for?”

“For violating the revenue law,” I quickly answered, discovering he was intoxicated.

“Hic-for-hic-for violating the revenue law, did you say?”

“Yes sir, that’s what; and as sure as you open your mouth again I’ll have you arrested. You are old enough and have had experience enough to know better than to come out here on Main Street and open a rum-hole without paying license!”

The crowd yelled and screamed and whooped and shouted with unusual enthusiasm, which at once convinced me that I had struck something different from the ordinary, and my opinion was fully confirmed when he commenced to laugh, and stepping within my reach began buying my goods as fast as I could hand them to him. He never opened his mouth, but kept reaching for the goods as fast as I could count them and pass them out, and handed me a dollar for each sale, as I was selling in dollar lots. This he kept up till he had loaded himself and several friends, and started off, saying he would be back the next night.

After he left I was informed that he was worth several millions, which he had made in iron and copper mines.

The next night I went out with my cart rather early, as usual, and lighted my torches and returned to the hotel to await the regular time for opening. When I came out again I was surprised to see every window in every building around me occupied by nicely dressed ladies, and the streets filled with handsome horses drawing carriages occupied, as I could see, by a well-to-do class of people.

It was remarked by many the next day that there never had been as large a crowd gathered on the street at one time before, and the result of my sale, which was three times larger than any I had ever before had, proved to me what a little free advertising could do.

I looked in vain, as did also many of my audience, for the rich miner, but he didn’t come.

We continued on towards the copper country, working the iron mining towns on our way, arriving at Houghton the middle of July.

The next day after making my first sale there, I was walking down street, and when passing a store room a gentleman came to the door and said:

“You’re just the man that ought to buy me out and sell the goods at auction.”

“What have you got?”

“I have everything boots, shoes, suits of clothes, overcoats, dishes, notions and I don’t know what I haven’t got.”

I asked his reason for selling. He replied that it was a stock that had gone through a fire, and he had bought it for a few hundred dollars and was then six hundred dollars ahead, and would sell the balance cheap. I stepped inside and after glancing over the stock asked his price.

“Six hundred dollars.”

“I’ll give you just twenty-five per cent. of that, and no more,” and started to walk out.

“I’ll take two hundred fifty.”

“No sir,” taking a roll of money from my pocket and showing it to him, “one hundred and fifty, and your cash in your fingers.”

“All right, count it out.”

“But step to the Recorder’s office and assure me that there is no mortgage on your stock and that it belongs to you, and after giving me a bill of sale your money is ready.”

He did so, and I made the purchase.

In this stock was a quantity of paper cambric of all colors, and when the firemen were trying to put out the fire they had deluged it, and the result was that the water had soaked through it and had carried with it all the colors, leaving each piece variegated.

I was at a loss to know what to do with it, and finally concluded to cut it up into dress patterns of sixteen and two-thirds yards and then give one pattern away with each dollar sale that evening when I sold at auction.

That night, before opening my sale, I picked up one of the pieces, and handing one end of it to a boy, requested him to run down the street with it till he got it all straightened out. While the boy was holding to one end and I to the other, I went on and explained that I had that day bought out Mr. , and as I had no knowledge of the dry-goods business and couldn’t tell a piece of calico from an Irish tarpaulin, that they must not blame me if I sold them silk for Canton flannel.

Besides the paper cambric I had a lot of other pieces of dress goods, which were in good shape and which I intended to sell to the highest bidder.

Just as I was about to inaugurate my gift enterprise scheme, some gentleman of German descent cried out in broken English:

“Swei dollar.”

I at once yelled:

“Sold for two dollars, and who will have the next sixteen and two-thirds yards for two dollars?”

“I’ll take ’em,” “I’ll take ’em,” “Here,” “Here,” “Give me one,” “Give me one,” they all shouted at once, and the two-dollars were as thick as hailstones in less than a second. I stood there and tossed out the dress patterns and caught their two-dollar bills and silver pieces like a Chinese juggler. After I had cleaned out every dollar’s worth of the cambric I said:

“Gentlemen, I am going to be frank with you now, and advise you not to represent to your wives that you have any great bargain in these dress patterns, for they may be better posted than any of us are. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do, boys. If you are dissatisfied now I’ll give you two dollars’ worth of any other goods I have, and take the dress patterns back; or if your wives are not satisfied they can come to the store to-morrow at ten o’clock and I’ll give them two dollars’ worth of any goods I have in exchange for the patterns.”

They agreed that that was fair, and all stayed and I made a splendid sale of notions.

The next day, at two o’clock, I went down to the store and found a crowd of women large enough to fill a small circus tent. Each one had a dress pattern, and as I passed by to unlock the door each had something to say. The crowd was composed of all classes Polish, Norwegian, Irish, German, Cornish, etc. The Irish, with their sharp tongues and quick wit, were predominant, and all together they had considerable sport in relating what their husbands had to say when they brought home the dress patterns and learned that those same goods had been offered for one-fourth of a cent a yard ever since the fire. I took every piece back and allowed them to trade it out. I employed two young men to help me that afternoon and took down each lady’s name and then jumped up and made an auction sale to them. We kept each lady’s purchase by itself, and after the sale had a final settlement with them, many of whom had bought enough to bring them considerably in my debt.

This was one of the very best advertisements for me, as it convinced the people that I would do by them as I agreed; and they all considered it a good joke, and the afternoon sale having made me acquainted with many women, I had no trouble in getting a large crowd every night who bought freely.

After making several sales at Houghton I packed up and went over to Hancock and Red Jacket, where I met with flattering success. As nearly as I could estimate it, I cleared about twelve hundred dollars on my investment of one hundred and fifty.

I sold nearly everything at an advance on the regular first cost, but when I came to look through the boxes and drawers and sort all the goods contained in my new stock, I was much surprised and greatly pleased.

I remained at Red Jacket six weeks, making sales every night.

On the first of September, as it had begun to get cold up there, and in fact had twice snowed a very little the last of August, we returned to Chicago, when I immediately called on my friend Doctor Ingraham. He didn’t recognize me until I took a large roll of bills, containing over three thousand dollars, from my pocket and said:

“Doctor, I would be pleased to loan you a hundred dollars and I’ll bet you will pay it back in less than three months.”

“O-ho, Johnston, you have got to the front, haven’t you? How are you? how are you?” shaking me warmly by the hand.