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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

John C. French had the knack to be a salesman extraordinaire

March 04. 2013 5:28PM

In the late 1860s Manchester was a prosperous city.

The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, with its large textile factories and machine shop, dominated the industrial landscape, but there were many other manufacturers in operation. These included other textile producers plus machinists, paper mills, and makers of axes, shoes, barrels, wheels, carriages, windows, harnesses, saddles, corsets, wigs, stockings, hats, dresses, furs and many other goods.

There were also grocers, hardware stores, dry good stores, beer brewers, blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, lumber dealers, tobacconists, book stores, sewing machine vendors, musical instrument merchants, butchers, printers, plumbers, physicians, photographers, restaurants, undertakers, tailors, laundries, stables, grist mills, hairdressers, gunsmiths, apothecaries, banks, billiard saloons, boarding houses - and at least 29 lawyers.

All of this commercial activity, plus the fact that hundreds of buildings were either under construction or just finished (many of them standing close together), gave rise to the possibility of loss from fire and accident. It was critical that insurance be made available to spread the risk intrinsic to city life. Manchester's 1869 city directory listed 22 insurance agents for a population of around 30,000 people. This wasn't a large number, considering that many were primarily engaged in real estate or had law practices. John C. French was one of the few who focused entirely on selling insurance and serving their clients in case of loss.

John came to the insurance profession through an interesting route. His grandfather Abram French was a carpenter in Stratham, New Hampshire. He was hired to finish the interior of the first meeting house in Pittsfield, and then built a house in that town for Reverend Christopher Paige. A few years later, the reverend departed, and Abram bought his house. He married Hannah Lane of Stratham in 1896, and the two raised a family, which eventually included 12 children. Their eldest son Enoch married Eliza Cate of Epsom in 1823, and they settled at the farm next door. They had five children, with John C. being born in 1832. He was the only child to survive to adulthood.

John, like many young people of his generation, was in love with learning, but had few opportunities to get ahead due to his family's poverty. He attended the local common school, and read as much as he could at home. When he was a teenager he worked on his family's rocky farm in the summer and taught school in the winter. He scraped together enough money to be able to take classes at the academies at Pittsfield, Gilmanton and Pembroke. As he couldn't afford college, he sought some type of work that would suit his intellectual interests. He was fortunate to be hired as a salesman for J. H. Colton & Co. of New York. This firm produced wall maps, guidebooks, and pocket maps.

Starting in 1855 Colton & Co. began publishing atlases. John was sent off to sell subscriptions to the impressive "Colton's Atlas of the World." This expensive and beautiful book illustrated both physical and political geography. John was a natural salesman. He was tireless in his travels around the countryside, and was able to easily engage people in conversation. He sold over 1,200 atlases before they were even off the press. This put him in favor with the company's managers, who appointed him as the general agent for New England in 1855. John sold Colton's geographies to public schools, and later was also hired by two other publishers to peddle their school books. During the eight years that John worked as a traveling salesman, he spent as much time as he could with his parents in Pittsfield, and he would always remain connected to the farm where he grew up.

According to the compendium "Successful New Hampshire Men," John ".was able to gratify his fondness for travel, observation, and reading; gained an acquaintance with the leading authors, teachers, publishers, and other prominent educators and a knowledge of local history, industries, and resources of all the principal towns in New England." He also learned the art of personal persuasion and of marketing to the general public. These skills would serve him well in the world of insurance, where he would achieve great success.

Next week: John C. French and the founding of the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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