Peddlers hold a special place in early American culture. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, when there were few stores around, the peddler, with his horse and buggy, became a common sight across the United States.
Most rural towns had a single general store that typically carried a very limited variety of merchandise. Since many farm families at that time had little cash on hand, bartering for goods was a common form of commerce. Butter and eggs might be traded for fresh vegetables from the garden. If nothing else was available, there would always be a few extra chickens or pigs to trade.
Those earliest traveling salesmen had to know the value of these items in order to make a fair trade, so that when they got to the next town they could find a buyer for the items for which they had traded.
At the time of the Industrial Revolution, and peaking after the Civil War, goods became more sophisticated and varied and there was an upsurge in the number of traveling salesmen in the U.S. Encouraged to dress respectably (to inspire confidence in the general public), salesmen were sent into the field with scaled-down versions of real products, which they used to demonstrate features to retailers and potential customers.
An aggressive form of direct marketing by companies pushing their specific products, these miniature goods, known as salesman samples, were easily transportable by traveling salespeople. They allowed dealers to showcase a variety of items that could then be ordered directly from a manufacturer. Once a salesman snagged a buyer, he secured a deposit and placed the order. When the item was made and shipped, the buyer would complete the transaction.
Commonly used in the 19th and 20th centuries, salesman samples were exact duplicates of the larger pieces, showing extensive and important details. They fall into two categories: those that work and those that do not. Working samples, more common prior to 1920, can help date a piece. It is easy for a collector to confuse a true salesman sample from a child’s toy. Look for great detail and specific aspects of the product — not what you would find on a small-scale toy.
Collectors must be wary. Many of the miniatures sold on eBay as salesman samples are actually toys. For example, the Germans made some very detailed and exacting toy steam engines that look very much like full-size steam engines, but, indeed, they are toys. Then there are the detailed models of actual steam engines, made ever since the engines were designed and manufactured.
Another clue is that the salesman sample will almost always have the name of the product or company logo on it, whereas a toy would not. Farm equipment was a natural candidate for such samples. There are some excellent examples of working plows, reapers and other farm machinery. However, samples were produced across a wide range of industries, including working typewriters that can fit in the palm of a hand, shoes, a working grist mill, Flexible Flyer sleds, a brace and bit drill set, furniture, furnaces and specimen books (also called blads), just to name a few.
Depending on the type, condition, age and origin of the salesman sample, these small-scale models command high prices on the antiques market. Rare salesman samples are the most collectible; many were made using the same blueprints and instructions as the actual full-size product.
Most salesman samples were made to 1:6 scale or 1:8 scale when compared to the actual product, machine or piece of equipment. Generally, the more a vintage salesman sample remains true to the original product and its working features, the higher its value to collectors.
Advances in industrial mass production and freight transportation laid the groundwork for the beginnings of modern retail and distribution networks, which gradually eroded much of the need for traveling salesmen and their samples. The rise of popular mail-order catalogs (Montgomery Ward began in 1872) offered another way for people in rural areas to obtain items not readily available in local stores or markets.
Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, a design consultant and a realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Virginia. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.