Commercial travellers, also known as travelling salesmen, have been an important part of Australian life since early in the 19th century. They regularly visited almost every city, town, or settlement across the nation selling their wares or seeking orders for products of the companies or manufacturers that they represented. They used every imaginable mode of travel – horseback, buggy, wagon, stage coach, intra- and interstate shipping and railways, motorcycles, cars and trucks – so they had strong views on deficiencies in these services and were not backward in forcefully expressing them to the relevant authorities.
By the 1870s and 1880s they began to form state-based Commercial Travellers’ Associations. The Queensland Association was formed in 1884, and by 1907 had over 500 members and a fine building at 283 Elizabeth St, Brisbane. In time, there were associations in all states and in New Zealand, and an Australasian Commercial Travellers’ Association was formed to represent the interests of commercial travellers at the national, and to some extent, the international level.
The associations were, of course, greatly concerned with the welfare of their members, and developed and promoted accident and sickness insurance schemes, provided scholarships to children of members, compiled lists of recommended hotels across the country, and arranged social evenings, fundraisers, “smoke nights”, balls and so on. Being a commercial traveller and away from one’s family for weeks at a time could be a very lonely occupation, so CTA members used to get together in hotels and towns for companionship whenever possible.
During World War One they actively encouraged enlistment by members and/or their sons, and participated vigorously in the conscription debates – generally on the side of conscription. Commercial Travellers’ Associations were also very active in fund raising for the war effort, and the Australasian Association even donated an aeroplane.
State Library of Queensland has an excellent collection of issues of the Association’s trade journal, its monthly publication, The Australasian Traveller starting in 1905 and continuing as the Australian Traveller from 1925 to 1976, and early records of the Queensland CTA.
As well as providing a detailed history of the activities of the various Commercial Travellers’ Associations, The Australasian Traveller also provides a wealth of more general information and images of:
• everyday life in cities and towns across Australia
• issues of the day (such as the impact of the world wars on life and commercial activities)
• modes of transport and their progressive developments
• styles and standards of accommodation available in towns both large and small
• early development of the tourist industry in Queensland
• social activities of the clubs, such as billiards competitions and cricket matches
• prominent club members and their families, including their roles, photos, obituaries and family.
Margaret Cook has written a useful overview paper entitled Knights of the road – the Commercial Travellers of Queensland in the Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 2000, Vol 17, No 6, pp 241-246, which may be found online via SLQ’s One Search catalogue.
Photographs related to Queensland commercial travellers may be found online using One Search and a more Australia-wide perspective is available through Trove (National Library of Australia’s search engine and database).
Find your commercial traveller ancestor and a glimpse of another time in Australia among the records.
Dr Roger Jones
Dr Roger Jones is an agricultural scientist who was formerly with CSIRO. He is now an SLQ volunteer compiling an overview of SLQ resources on commercial travellers.