Abstract: The Fixer: Business Travel and the Maintenance of Retail System

Susan V. Spellman


Simon Kapstein was on the road again. The beleaguered traveler rarely had a day off, let alone a vacation from his job with E.P. Charlton & Company, a national chain of five-and-dime stores. Kapstein’s work took him across the Northwest in the early decades of the twentieth century, overhauling poor merchandising displays, repairing inefficient operations, and resolving personnel conflicts that cropped up in the chain’s stores. In many ways, Kapstein was tasked with “civilizing” and maintaining the organization’s complex and diffuse retail system, fixing problems that threatened to disrupt operations. It was one of many reasons businessmen continued to travel, despite advances in communications technologies that promised to render such movement obsolete in the twentieth century.

This paper is inspired by recent work in the history of technology by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell (among others), who question the ongoing fixation with innovators to the detriment of those who maintain the systems and organizations that shape our everyday world. It argues that the mundane work done by men who traveled was essential to the maintenance of retail systems in particular and capitalism in general. Scholarship on business travel has focused largely on salesmen and the formation of networks. Missing from these studies are the widespread implications of business travel and its role in maintaining capitalism’s basic structures, language, and practices. Those who hit the road, after all, secured and maintained important trade relationships, established new contacts, and gathered business information, demonstrating the persistence of face-to-face relations in a highly rationalized and bureaucratized global economy. 

Drawing on the letters of Simon Kapstein and E.P. Charlton, along with newspaper articles and other sources, this paper will illuminate the ways in which travelers kept business operations going, secured business and personal relations, and made possible American capitalism’s geographic and economic advance. While innovations in retailing and manufacturing undoubtedly changed store size and composition, the underlying principles and operation of retail systems such as those employed by Charlton & Co. remained remarkably consistent between the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Holding these operations together were the Simon Kapsteins of the world, who focused not on innovative solutions but on doing “the best I can [to] keep things going.”