Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Woman of...Wednesday--Persis Foster Eames Albee: Woman of Resilience

I profiled Persis Foster Eames Albee for Women of Granite: 25 New Hampshire Women You Should Know. (Or as The Write Sisters simply call it, WOG.) Persis made the final cut and became a WOG subject because she was instrumental in developing the sales model that built the Avon empire. Persis was the first Avon lady. The company was named The California Perfume Company at the time, and Persis sold door-to-door and recruited and trained other women to do the same. David McConnell, who started the business, called Persis "The Mother of the California Perfume Company," and readily acknowledged her contributions to the company's great success. Since 1969, Avon has recognized its top salespeople with The Albee Award, a statue of Persis. In 1997, Avon teamed up with Mattel to create a Barbie doll series based on Persis. Mrs. P.F.E. Albee has become huge with collectors.

My initial research into Persis's life kept bringing up the same information. Born in Newry, Maine in 1836. Marries Ellery Albee, a lawyer who became a state senator and treasurer of the local bank. Moves to Winchester, New Hampshire. Has three children, one of whom dies shortly after birth. Runs a general store out of her house with Ellery. Is president of the Winchester Literary Guild. Hooks up with David McConnell to sell books door-to-door. Impresses David to no end with her sales prowess. Is widowed at some point before she starts selling perfume in 1886. Does a bang-up job in the perfume business. Is so fabulous, she becomes the Avon Everywoman AND a Barbie doll.

So that was Persis's story. But something didn't feel right. Why was this Victorian-era woman with the lawyer/state senator/bank treasurer husband running a general store out of her house? And why on earth was she selling books door-to-door? And exactly how did Ellery die, anyway?

When I typed "Persis Foster Eames Albee" into the search engine at Newspaper Archive I wasn't terribly surprised when nothing came up that changed her story. Because I don't know when to stop researching and start writing, I typed "Ellery Albee" into the search engine. I hit the jackpot.

Apparently, in March 1881, Ellery stole over $100,000 from his bank, which didn't sit well with the authorities. He was tried, convicted, and tossed in the clink. I can only imagine the humiliation Persis felt. The 1880 census put Winchester, New Hampshire's population at 2,444. I'd wager that the $100,000 Ellery stole pretty much wiped out the savings of almost everybody in town. (Or at least the savings of those folks who foolishly decided to take their money out of their mattresses and put it in the bank.)

To make matters worse, Ellery didn't do his time quietly. According to the headlines, he was a "shammer." In fact, the January 31, 1886 Fort Wayne, Indiana Sunday Gazette headline read "Years of Shamming." The article went into great detail about how Ellery became mysteriously paralyzed while serving his sentence. At least one crack jail guard was onto Ellery. While peeking through a keyhole at the "paralyzed" Ellery, he observed Ellery raising his arms and moving on the bed.

Here's poor Persis, trying to survive in this little town whose populace had to have the kind of long memory that's a hallmark of little town populaces everywhere, and what does her shamming, thieving husband do? He resurfaces on a national level five years after he's convicted. Talk about opening up wounds for the sole purpose of pouring in the Mortons. When it rains it pours.

Now Persis is going to go door-to-door selling perfume to her neighbors.

"Ding dong. Avon calling!"

"Why Persis! Lovely to see you! Come in and make yourself at home. Mi casa es su casa. What's that you say? You're selling Little Dot Perfume Sets? Would I like to buy one? Would I! If I had any money left I'd buy several, but I don't have any money left BECAUSE YOUR SHAMMING HUSBAND STOLE IT ALL!"

How did she do it? How did she muster up the courage to knock on that first door and peddle her wares? As I see it, that's Persis's real triumph in life. That and the fact she became a Barbie doll. She looks like Barbie, don't you think?


Anonymous said...

Great post, A!

Anonymous said...

The truth is always so much more interesting than anything any of us could make up, isn't it? Thanks for the post, Andy.