NEW YORK – Sometimes confused with toys, salesman’s samples are small-scale versions of products, such as farm equipment, machinery, furniture and drugstore goods. They once were a salesman’s best marketing tool.
In the late 1800s–early 1900s, when traveling salesmen would go town to town to take orders for products, these samples became a critical part of their sales pitch to show a buyer what he would get before placing an order. Some companies still make salesman’s samples today but with the advent of digital marketing, salesman’s samples are not as common as they once were.
Salesman’s samples were scaled-down replicas of the original item, say a plow, with nearly all the features of the full-sized versions. Most were working models. Ranging from a few inches to about 2 feet tall (sometimes larger as with a canoe), they often featured complex mechanisms that the salesman would demonstrate to explain to a potential customer how the item worked. Customers could also inspect the sample to be assured of its manufacturing quality. A sample’s small size allowed salesman to carry them in a case as he peddled his wares, traveling by horse and buggy or train.
“Salesman’s samples were a key part of persuasive demonstrations and getting the order in 19th century and early 20th century America,” noted Rodney Ross, curator of the DFW Elite Toy Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, in a press release for an exhibition on salesman’s samples the museum presented from its collection. Seeing how a working scale model functioned would have instilled buyer confidence from municipal agents to order such equipment as road graders, tillers and tractors when these items were brand new and unfamiliar to most potential buyers.
In general, the most collectible samples are those with mechanical moving parts. The more authentically made they were in resembling their full-size counterparts, the more money they bring from collectors. “These types of samples were often intricate and difficult to assemble. Farm equipment samples are one of the most collectible because they had the most mechanical parts,” says Dan Morphy, CEO and owner of Dan Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania.
Besides tractors and farm equipment, all sorts of products were made as salesman’s samples, including typewriters, folding attic ladders, stoves, sleds, windmills, well pumps, furnaces, barber chairs, books, household furniture, bank safes, humidors, Coca-Cola coolers, garage doors, pocketknives and even burial caskets.
As they were made to scale, usually 1:6 or 1:8, sometimes these salesman’s samples can be mistaken for dollhouse items or children’s toys. “Samples generally have actual working components integrated in the sample and were created true to scale,” Morphy said. One good way to tell the difference is that samples often will have a label announcing the product’s name, and sometimes a patent date; toys usually would not. They are also usually more mechanically complex and detailed than a toy would be but not always. Miniature cookstoves are often referred to as salesman’s samples but most are actually highly detailed toys.
A fine example of a complex salesman’s sample was a Murphy bed, circa 1870, that auctioneer Noel Barrett of Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions Ltd. in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, appraised in May 2018 for an episode of Antiques Roadshow. “It’s really a complicated little device,” Barrett said on camera, while pointing out the owner how it worked. A longtime aficionado of salesman’s samples, Barrett opened several small doors to reveal areas for blankets, storage, a wash basin and even a shaving area with mirror. When the doors are opened another way, however, one large panel drops down to reveal the Murphy bed complete with a scaled-down mattress. The bed displays a label indicating it was made by William Kelly, Bath, Maine, and patented April 19, 1870.
Another rare example Barrett came across was a butcher block sample that he sold at auction in June 2019 for $2,600, well over its estimate. The sample set on three legs measuring 3½ inches tall still had its original decal reading “Wolf, Sayer & Heller – Chicago Butcher Supplies – Handsome Market Fixtures.”
Dan Morphy Auctions has also sold quite a few salesman samples over the years, particularly barber chairs and Coca-Cola display items. Highlights include a sample of the Koken barber chair that was sought after because of its attention to detail and authenticity. A 16-inch-tall sample chair has white porcelain, leather upholstery and nickel-plated details, and folds upright. It realized $17,000 in October 2018.
The highest price seen on LiveAuctioneers’ price database for a salesman’s sample barber chair was a Victorian-era chair constructed of quartersawn oak that earned $41,000 at Cottone Auctions in June 2012. That 25-inch-tall chair featured elaborate carving with lion’s faces and a nickel-plated cast-iron adjustable framework.
As with most cases, rarity drives demand. “Since they were meant to advertise a product, not many were produced. It was a sales tool that salespeople took with them from business to business,” Morphy said, saying the scarcity of samples spurs their appeal among collectors.