The man of a thousand sales
search
HistoryA glimpse into the work of the 'Bargain King'

The man of a thousand sales

Harry Saville was the greatest salesman of the 1920s, as he himself could attest.

A typical Harry Saville advertisement in the March 28, 1924 issue of the Jewish Criterion, showing a scene from a recent promotional sale in Warren, Ohio (Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)
A typical Harry Saville advertisement in the March 28, 1924 issue of the Jewish Criterion, showing a scene from a recent promotional sale in Warren, Ohio (Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)

It took me a while to understand what Harry Saville did for a living. Even now, I’m not convinced I understand. I’m definitely curious, though, and based on what little I know about his career, I think he would take my curiosity as proof of a job well done.

My curiosity started with an advertisement in the Jewish Criterion. It featured a little illustration of a man appearing to throw a punch at the reader. A photograph of Saville’s face was stuck atop the illustrated body. That dynamic illustration appeared over and over in newspaper advertisements from the early 1920s for Saville Sales Co.

Saville Sales Co. didn’t sell products, not directly. Its customers were retailers looking to move large amounts of inventory quickly. Sometimes the motivation was overstock. Sometimes it was bankruptcy liquidation. Sometimes it was cash flow.

Saville arranged “special sales” designed to get people into a store with their wallets out. It was a top-to-bottom operation. His guys designed advertising campaigns, painted window signs, arranged merchandise on the shelves, trimmed display windows, handed out circulars, organized product demonstrations, and arranged promotional stunts like contests to win a new car. For one big sale, Saville brought a microphone and amplifiers and created a small broadcasting system to hype products as people shopped.

His ads feature many self-inflicted nicknames: the Bargain King, the Sale King, the Man of a Thousand Sales, the Red Pencil Man and the World’s Greatest Price Cutter.

In a profile in the Commercial Journal, reprinted in the Jewish Criterion, a writer named Cyrus Kennebec describes the extent of Saville’s operation stretching across the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and into small towns throughout Western Pennsylvania, “Homestead, Woodlawn, Charleroi, East Liberty, Homewood, Wilkinsburg, Braddock, East Pittsburgh, McKeesport, New Kensington, Greensburg, Jeannette, downtown Pittsburgh, North Side, McKees Rocks, New Castle and perhaps other places I have forgotten. And there must be scores of other towns he has been successful in. In virtually every instance the circumstances were similar, A merchant had to have ready money. He couldn’t get it; Saville could and did — or a merchant was overstocked and bills were coming due. Saville rubbed his magic lamp and the public bowed.”

All the information about Saville Sales Co. comes from advertisements. Even the many articles about him — including the one quoted above — appear upon closer inspection to be advertisements that Saville created to market his services to storeowners.

For what it’s worth, here’s what they claim.

Saville started in 1900. He was the first person in Pittsburgh and one of the first nationally in the field of promotional sales. He was initially a one-man operation limited to a 25-mile radius around the city, but gradually he expanded hundreds of miles in every direction, serving customers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, New York and Indiana. He initially worked exclusively with large businesses but then systemized his operation and hired a large workforce of sales experts, allowing him to oversee big sales for stores of essentially any size, taking him to cities and towns all over the region.

Saville ran two types of advertisements. He had small ads in the Criterion aimed at storeowners, and he had larger ads in the city newspapers on behalf of those stores.

In the smaller ads, Saville comes across as a savvy businessman addressing his colleagues. In one, he writes, “How would you like to cash in $3,590.74 in a single day’s business, Mr. Merchant?” In the larger ads, Saville is a price-cutting mad man, desperate to get you the best deal possible. He sometimes even pretends to be a little antagonistic toward the storeowner — his client — on behalf of customers. As part of a giant center-page spread advertising a sale in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Saville reprints both sides of a correspondence with the storeowner. “You are to be congratulated on your willingness to take this loss now and give the people of your city some real values,” Saville writes.

Everything about his advertisements is circular. He might advertise a fire sale one week with a noisy advertisement in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, and then the next week he would publish photographs from that sale in a different advertisement in the Jewish Criterion, describing the sale and encouraging other storeowners to hire him. And then the following week, he would add his photograph and a personal quote to an advertisement for a different fire sale, his reputation bolstered by the first fire sale.

All this twistiness was a product of the flashy 1920s. His operation changed after the stock market crashed. By the early 1930s, Saville had left his offices in the Washington Trust Building and was working from home. Within a few years, he shifted away from big sales. He started selling Inselbric and calling himself “The Siding King.” PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

read more:
comments