The phrase to sell refrigerators, or ice-boxes, to (the) Eskimos and its variants refer to the supply of something to a place where it is not needed—synonyms: to sell sand in the Sahara and to carry coals to Newcastle.
In particular, could sell refrigerators, or ice-boxes, to (the) Eskimos and its variants are applied to efficient salesmen, and, by extension, to persuasive persons—antonyms: couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery and unable to run a whelk stall.
These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase to sell refrigerators, or ice-boxes, to (the) Eskimos that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From an article about “the monopolistic control of the anthracite industry by the Coal Trust as far west as Chicago”, published in The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Tuesday 25th October 1904:
Every dealer was a victim of a spy system of the trust. If it were ascertained that a retail dealer not on the list of the association had obtained a cargo of coal, the fact was reported at once to the association and summary vengeance meted out to the concern selling to the retail dealer.
The association was bound by iron-clad laws not to sell to those not on the list and the man who had not the favor of the trust association could no more sell coal in Chicago than he could sell refrigerators in the Arctic region.
2-: From The Charleston Evening Post (Charleston, South Carolina) of Thursday 2nd January 1908:
THE SCENT OF CEYLON
The American consul at Colombo reports that while no perfumery is imported to Ceylon from the United States, German perfumery is finding an increased market there. The imports from England are also considerable, though they have not increased during the past ten years. The increase of German imports is said to be due wholly to their cheapness, while England supplies only the more costly perfumery. It is becoming common, in many places, to pour perfume, “made in Germany,” on the shrines in the Buddhist temples, in place of the temple flowers and benjamin and sandalwood formerly used.
So, when, in singing the old missionary hymn, we come to the part about “the spicy breezes” that “blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle,” let us remember that they are heavily laden with eau de cologne and bear testimony to the commercial enterprise of our German friends. Perhaps we could sell refrigerators to the dwellers in “Greenland’s icy mountains.”
3-: From How to Be Beautiful, by Sheeza Baer, published in the Chicago Examiner (Chicago, Illinois) of Sunday 3rd November 1912:
FOR THE COMPLEXION—There are many remedies designed to improve the complexion. Red cheeks are always desirable, but natural red cheeks among married women are about as common as refrigerators among the blond Eskimos. Seven or eight cocktails will, however, generally bring a noticeable flush to the cheeks. This flush is not permanent, however, and if the remedy is taken too frequently the flush shifts to the nose, where it does become permanent.
4-: From the column Folks In Our Town, by Walt Mason, published in the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts) of Thursday 28th October 1915:
“That man Bellspinder will be rich before he realizes it,” observed the notary public. “He is the most persistent salesman I ever saw, and I expect he could sell refrigerators to the Eskimos. He simply won’t be turned down.”
5-: From the column Seen on the Side, published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) of Thursday 30th March 1916:
“I have called,” remarked the aggressive young person in the checked suit, “in answer to your advertisement for a man to sell refrigerators to the Eskimos.”
“Well,” said the man behind the desk, “what makes you think you can fill the bill?”
“I know I can,” said the applicant, breezily. “I spent last summer, very successfully, retailing ‘The Lives of the Saints’ to residents of the Borough of Manhattan.”
6-: From an interview of the U.S. lawyer and author Bolton Hall (1854-1938), published in The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, Montana) of Friday 29th June 1917:
Usually conditions determine what the average man shall be. But the man that succeeds is the man that thinks he can. Success comes in cans, failures in can’ts. There never was a successful promoter who didn’t think he could sell refrigerators to the Eskimos if he had the time.
7-: From The Holton Recorder (Holton, Kansas) of Thursday 20th December 1917:
The Wichita Beacon thinks sending fire works to soldiers for Christmas is like unto sending refrigerators to the Eskimos.
8-: From this advertisement, published in the Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Friday 31st October 1919:
We refuse to advertise refrigerators to the Eskimos and encyclopedias to the Zulus—otherwise, our efforts are unrestricted.
HERBERT M. MORRIS
Every Phase of Sales Promotion
400 Chestnut Street Philadelphia
9-: From How the Potato Peddler Became Mayor of Busy, Big Youngstown, O., published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Sunday 8th January 1922:
“Why, that fellow could sell refrigerators to Esquimaux.” You have often heard someone thus refer to the selling ability of some individual, but you probably didn’t believe that the man referred to could actually do it.
Out in the flourishing Middle West city of Youngstown, Ohio, there is a man who could not only sell refrigerators to Esquimaux, but who could also sell them a year’s supply of ice to boot. His name is George L. Oles and he is the newly-elected mayor. […]
The astonishing element in Oles’ election is not the fact that he was once a potato peddler, but how he got himself elected.
Applied psychology, finding the universal human note, that touch which appeals to human nature in everybody, and striking it through the medium of newspaper advertising—that was what elected Oles.
Oles’ advertisements were masterpieces of human appeal. Any one who reads them cannot doubt his ability to sell refrigerators to Esquimaux or radiators in the Sahara.
10-: From this advertisement for the Houston Watch Company, published in The Houston Post (Houston, Texas) of Tuesday 30th May 1922:
“You Can’t Sell Ice Boxes To the Eskimos”—
“And that’s what you are trying to do when you attempt to sell railroad watches to other than railroad men,” said a friend of mine.
“Maybe so,” said I, “but just the same the business or professional man who wants absolute timekeeping accuracy of the accepted railroad standard—which means ‘right to the second’—should carry a railroad grade watch.”
11-: From the Morning World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska) of Saturday 17th June 1922:
Don’t Ship Ice Boxes to the Eskimos or
DON’T FORGET to file your Want Ads Early for the SUNDAY WORLD-HERALD.
The forms close for the Sunday Edition at
Avoid the rush hours. File your copy early in the day.
12-: From The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Sunday 18th June 1922:
A contributor to a New York paper says of the desire that foreign literary men have to write for American publications:
“I have been repeatedly asked by Continental authors to place their wares in America. Most of their products possessed merit; some of the work was first rate. Yet it would be just as difficult to sell many of these things in this country as it would be selling up-to-date refrigerators to the Eskimos.”
13-: From this advertisement for Buehler Bros., published in the Free Trader-Journal and Ottawa Fair Dealer (Ottawa, Illinois) of Friday 23rd June 1922:
You Cant’t [sic] Sell Refrigerators to Eskimos; But we can Sell You Quality Meat at exceptionally low prices
14-: From Oles Quits, published in The Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts) of Monday 3rd July 1922:
The mayor of Youngstown will go back to selling bananas. Good advertising made him mayor. They used to say he could sell refrigerators to the Eskimos.
15-: From this advertisement for John H. Brand Co., published in Every Evening (Wilmington, Delaware) of Friday 26th January 1923:
We Could Sell Refrigerators at the Pole at These Prices
Two Entire Carloads of the World Famous
Must be Sold in February
16-: From Muscle Shoals Land Is Sold on Ford’s Name, published in The Evansville Press (Evansville, Indiana) of Monday 31st March 1924:
Is the name of Henry Ford a magic selling point by which any auctioneer could sell refrigerators at the north pole?
17-: From The New Pictures, published in The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Monday 19th May 1924:
CRYSTAL—“The Confidence Man.”
Amiable Tom Meighan undertakes another crook role in “The Confidence Man,” which is at the Crystal this week. He appears as a cunning oil stock swindler, a glib young man who could, one knows, sell refrigerators to the Eskimos and succeed in the coal business at Newcastle.
18-: From Selling and Buying, published in The Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, Indiana) of Saturday 13th September 1924:
A good many failures are occasioned in the selling game by going at it from the wrong angle. You may need money but that fact does not concern one who is to buy you or buy from you. You must show your buyer that he can make a legitimate profit by following your selling suggestions.
And you must know your market. A good many failures are caused by those who would sell sand to the Sahara Arabs or start ice plants in the Arctic circle.
19-: From the portrait of a journalism student named Dorrance D. Roderick, published in the Sooner State Press (Norman, Oklahoma) of Saturday 21st February 1925:
“Dorrance D. Roderick can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and manage a newspaper and job shop at the same time,” declares one of Roderick’s humorously inclined admirers.
20-: From the column The Passing Show, by J. C. Aby, published in the New Orleans States (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Saturday 4th July 1925:
Some salesmen have so much confidence in their ability that they really believe they could sell refrigerators at the north pole.