Salesman’s Samples: Colleting Scale Models of Turn-of-the-Century Merchandise
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, functional salesman’s samples were expensive to make but easy to transport and demonstrate their products features and benefits using the scaled-down functional product sample to potential customers. What do you think a farmer would think when shown this sample hay rake? With its original case, it sold at a James D. Julia auction in November of 2014 for $17,000.
“She Ran Away With A Shoe Drummer” read the Chicago Tribune headline of April 19, 1890. The ensuing article told of a great scandal: a recently married young socialite left her husband to run off with a travelling salesman (“drummers” in those days were travelling salesmen, called such because they would “drum up” business for their employers). This scenario was apparently so common at the turn of the 20th century that the phrase “she ran off with a drummer” became part of the common lexicon. It was incorporated into the plots of stage plays, dime novels and silent films.
A hundred years ago, there was an entire sub-culture built around the profession of travelling salesman. Many boarding houses, restaurants and hotels catered to these itinerant businessmen. Trains offered discount fares to regular users (similar to today’s frequent flyer miles). Drummers sometimes achieved celebrity status, and their comings-and-goings were heralded by local newspapers.
The Bloomington (Ind.) Daily Leader featured a regular column titled “Among the Drummers,” which featured news and gossip about travelling salesmen. “This has been another week of many drummers,” noted the July 25, 1891, edition of the Leader:
“They have poured in from all directions, and after a stay of greater or less duration have jumped the trains and run away again.”
Until the Second World War, drumming is how business was done in America. In the days before Eisenhower’s Interstate and Defense Highway System (begun in 1956), Americans didn’t travel far by car. Rural businesses and farms were introduced to new products by travelling salesmen, who would travel from town to town by train. These drummers would carry with them their companies’ catalogs and product samples. When a company’s product was too big to carry (like kitchen appliances, furniture, appliances or farm equipment) functional scale-models were carried.
This fully functioning scale sample triple-pedestal dining table—notice the dollar bill included in the photo to show its actual size—was expected to bring between $2,000 to $3,000; it sold for $5,000.
Collectible Scale Models
Functional salesman’s samples were expensive to make, but cheaper for a manufacturer than shipping full-sized models into cities so that farmers and businessmen could drive into town for a product demonstration. Instead, salesmen would seek out prospective customers and demonstrate their products features and benefits using the scaled-down functional product sample. A salesman would make his pitch based on the scale model, and the customer would place an order without ever having seen the actual product.
Manufacturers made enough functional samples to supply their sales force but no more. Consequently, salesmen’s samples for any given product are rare and quite collectible. A fine salesman’s sample would have been made with the same materials as the full-sized product, and to the same specifications (scaled down, of course). Most were made to 1/8 scale which, for very large pieces of equipment, were still of substantial size.
Not all salesman’s samples were functional models; some were non-working look-alikes that visually represented a product. Non-working samples were essentially advertising premiums. Collectors are quick to point out that authentic salesman’s samples are sometimes difficult to differentiate from scale-model toys and miniatures. Also, not to be confused with salesman’s samples, are patent models. Patent models were product prototypes used to secure a patent. Danielle Arnett, writing for The Chicago Tribune (Feb 13, 2015) suggests that when in doubt, collectors should research an item using an online database such as WorthPoint’s Worthopedia.
• A sample Hay Rake with carrying case was estimated to bring $2,500 to $3,500 at auction. The winning bid was $17,000;
• The auction estimate for a sample triple-pedestal dining table was $2,000 to $3,000; the item sold for $5,000;
• A pair of Chippendale arm chairs with an auction estimate of $50 to $100 brought only $40.
While many salesman’s samples can demand high prices, the subject and desirability, sometimes they just don’t capture the imagination of bidders. This pair of Chippendale chairs went into an auction with presale estimate of $50 to $100. Yet it brought only $40.
In all the above examples, the samples were in excellent condition. Auction exposure (the number of bidders) will affect the price of collectible salesman’s samples. Highest prices are achieved by large auction houses with adequate marketing budgets that use a combination of live and online bidding (like Cowan’s or Heritage).
So, if you are selling a salesman’s sample, you may get more money for your item by using such a company. If you want to buy salesman’s samples, search auctionzip.com using your desired item as a keyword and find smaller, local auction houses that are selling such items; you’re more likely to get a bargain.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.
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