In January 1926, Science Service took a chance on smart, plucky Hallie Jenkins, hiring the 27-year-old as their sales representative. During the following months, Jenkins traveled on her own throughout the Midwest, selling science to newspapers large and small. By the end of the year, she had moved to Washington, D.C., and become the organization’s sales and advertising manager, a position she held until her death in 1963.
When Watson Davis first met Jenkins (after his talk on “Science and Religion” at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Kansas City), she was casting around for work. She had sales experience (“I’ve been attempting to inveigle the public into the spending of its money for quite a number of years”), so Davis hired her on a trial basis.
The first reports to Davis preserve a snapshot of an independent woman, determined to impress her employer. “I am leaving for Salina [Kansas] at the wee hour of one bell,” she wrote. “Pity me – out in the cold gray morning – for the good of SCIENCE.” The prize for perseverance would be a steady income, but to justify salary and reimbursement of her travel costs, she had to land sales. “I will do my very best to see a number of prospects. The ones I cannot close – will see later.”
By February 10, Jenkins had been hired at half-time ($30 a week) plus (modest) expenses. After a trip to St. Louis in mid-February, she requested reimbursement of $45.93. The railroad fare and Pullman charge had been $26.06 and the remaining $19.87 “covered hotel, meals, tips, taxis, telephones – and the pressing of a frock.” “I had a lot of fun about the hotel room,” she wrote, because “the clerk wanted to charge me seven dollars. Now seven dollars for a lone lady is too much. So I gave said clerk a one-sided grin (if you knew me you would know that such a grin means – ‘Oh, you big story-teller!’) so I went for a manicure (which I did not charge to you) and came back to find a room ready for me – for four dollars. Isn’t nerve a wonderful thing? You folk have been so very nice to me I certainly am not going to impose on you – nor be imposed upon. And besides it was a lot of fun to accomplish said results – and I expect I got the very same room.”
In addition to an ebullient personality, Jenkins possessed a useful sensitivity to the potential variations in human nature. “It seems,” she wrote, “as if I must feel out each new prospect, must learn his likes and dislikes before I can complete a sale – but then such ‘missionary’ work is more to my liking. I try to discover in each individual a new source of information, of interest – and I get much enjoyment in pondering upon the queer quirks of these folk we call, often causelessly, human.” Jenkins described one editor as the sort of tall man “who untangles when he rises from his chair.” He was a “real farmer – having only been upon a newspaper for a little over six weeks. He has the look of the out-of-doors man, has unruly gray hair and kindly blue eyes. Slow of speech – and very easy to listen to – a man who seems to know little about ‘wimmin’ and who cares little about them – but who is ever so courteous.”
Another asset was her keen sense of humor. Asked to give a presentation about Science Service to scientists and students at the University of Kansas, Jenkins admitted wryly that (as a new employee of the organization) “this will be difficult,” but said she intended to do her best. She would, she said, take along copies of Science News Letter and other news products and would explain things “in the manner of the little girl whose Mother told her to go to the grocery to get a quart of vinegar. The wee lady could not pronounce the big, big word – so she boosted the vinegar jug (I almost said ‘little brown-jug’) high up on the counter and spake thusly to the clerk: ‘Smell of that – and gimme a quart.’ So I shall say – ‘Here are the samples – look ‘em over’.”
As a professional woman, traveling alone, Jenkins faced a challenge familiar to 21st-century readers. Here, too, humor and equanimity proved essential assets. In February, as Science Service was printing stationary and calling cards for their new “Middle Western Sales Representative,” she asked that “when you send me my stationery – please have my name ‘Hallie Jenkins’ not ‘Mrs. Hallie Jenkins.’ Saves time and trouble – hate explanations.” In her next letter, however, she did explain. “Well, you see it is like this,” she wrote to Davis: “without such a prefix the element of the personal is removed. You would be surprised at the many things I have been asked when I am announced as ‘Mrs.’”
I am asked:
A ... You’re married, aren’t you
B ... How long have you been married
C ... What does your husband do (if he does)
D ... Does he support you
E ... You are a modern woman – do not believe in home and children
F ... I suppose you hate house-work
G ... Your sex, is less womanly – believes less in the HOME – the – HOLY STATE OF MATRIMONY – if any”
So, she concluded, “you see how I feel. If I go to call upon a man I want him to buy, not to get chummy or inquisitive – I want to be just plain Hallie Jenkins (goodness knows I am plain enough) – I feel I can deal in a more business-like way with a man. [M]arriages, like operations, are taboo subjects of conversations.”
Hallie Jenkins persisted, succeeded, proved herself, and for the next 37 years sold science to hesitant newspaper editors. One Saturday evening, during that first spring of tryouts, she sat down and shared her delight in her most recent sale. “It takes nerve to go on and on in the face of a ‘no’ – and end with a ‘yes’,” she wrote. Yes, indeed.
- Record Unit 7091, Science Service, Records, circa 1910-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Women in Science, Smithsonian Institution Flickr