Salesman's Samples: Good Things Come in Small Packages

Salesman's samples used by machinery companies salesmen as easy, useful marketing item
Bill Vossler
August 2000
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Jon Kinzenbaw with his salesman's sample sulky plow, used in the late 1800s to drum up business. 
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A ten-penny nail two feet long. That's Marvin Fredrick's largest salesman's sample, he says. 

"It has U.S. Steel on the end of it," and Marvin says that's the tell-tale way of knowing whether you have a salesman's sample or not: "If they have a product name on them, they're usually a salesman's sample," the Oconomowoc, Wis., collector says. "If they don't have the name on them, they're usually a toy model of something."

Additionally, salesman's samples are all smaller than the original, "from super-small to super-big," Marvin says. In his collection of 300 salesman's samples he has a typewriter that will fit in the palm of your hand, as well as size 24 shoes.

There really are two types of salesman's samples: those that actually worked, (which most people consider "true" salesman's samples), and those that didn't. But no matter if they ran or not, the goal of all salesman's samples – and there are hundreds of different ones – was the same: to sell a product.

It Works, It Works!

Those salesman's samples that actually worked were more common before 1920 or so. Farm implement company salesmen hauled these highly-detailed samples from town to town and farm to farm, showing their latest wares to dealers and farmers, trying to drum up sales. Collector Ken Updike of Evansville, Wis., says they were used mostly during the pre-World War II era, and mostly towards the turn of the century.

"Say the late 1800s: A salesman with a working model of a little toy reaper or plow or whatever would hop on a train and travel from town to town, and have a kind of demo, showing people how it worked, and where they could buy it, which was usually out of a catalog," he says. "The buyer would never see the real machine until it had been ordered and showed up. This was a very cost-effective way for the machinery companies to do business, instead of loading the reaper or other machine on a train, and sending it around so people could see it. This way the salesman would just put it in his case, hop on another train, and head to the next town and a brand-new audience. Once the auto came around, though, I don't think the process lasted much longer."

These types of working salesman's samples are often difficult to tell apart from toy models that work, because they all have product names on them.

Often the sheer size of these older salesman's samples – usually 1/6- to 1/8-scale of the real machines – helped collectors differentiate them from smaller-scale toys. But in recent years, companies like Scale Models of Dyersville, Iowa, have been making 1/8-scale model toys that can muddy the waters.

Because identification research on salesman's samples is scant, Dick Sonnek of rural Mapleton, Minn., says the differences between them and toys aren't always so obvious. Many toys had great detail.

"For example, cookstoves which are often called salesman's samples very seldom are," he says, "but are rather very detailed toys."

Dick, who publishes Dick's Farm Toy Price Guide, likes salesman's samples, and has a unique example of a Brantland-Emerson Case plow.

"Probably fewer than a hundred of them were made,' he says, 'and were used by salesmen to illustrate to the farmer how this plow was made, and how it would work. It was very lifelike, very much like the real one would be when the farmer got one sent to him on the railroad car. These particular plow samples were made from the 1870s through 1920 or so. The one I have was made in 1910.'

He also had a salesman's sample of a very detailed early reaper, which was a bit larger than the BE-Case plow.

"I've had a number of salesman's samples during my collecting career," he says.

John Peternell of Albany, Minn., also has a couple of working salesman's samples. One is of a grist mill (real ones were used to grind grain.)

"I bought that in Indiana from the descendant of the salesman who had worked for this company," John says. "The salesman used the sample along with some literature and prices, and took orders that way. He'd show that the one he was selling was better than the competition, may be faster or bigger capacity or whatever their features were."

This grist mill sample had been up in an attic for many years, and didn't hold any sentimental value to the family, so they turned it into money by selling it to John.

"It's got such nice wood, and it's very detailed," he says. "If you turned it over, it would grind."

Some of his favorite parts of the grist mill are the original miniature stones inside.

John also has a miniature sample toolkit which was used as a salesman's sample, including a brace and bit type of drill set.

"It's all done in small size and all highly polished, made as nice or nicer than the real ones a person was going to get," he says. "Mine has a set of chrome-plated wrenches, although the real ones weren't chrome plated."

These tools actually work.

Then there's John's salesman's sample of a Barber & Greene truck loader.

"This would be brought in to show to a contractor, but wasn't made to be used by little kids," he says. "Kids could use it, and it would work, but with the open chain drive along the side, there would be problems. I got it because it was something I liked. I thought it was kind of neat that it was detailed that much."

For a while John also had a salesman's sample of a furnace.

"It was detailed down to the nut and bolt, all done to scale," he says.

Jon Kinzenbaw of Williamsburgh, Iowa, says his salesman's sample of a sulky plow was made to convince farmers that "'If you buy our sulky plow, your horses will actually pull easier and you get to ride for free.' There are salesman's samples of mowers, binders, of almost all the different machinery over the years, but they are few and far between because not many were built," he says. "They were expensive, so just enough were made so the sales force could go out and show them to the dealer. Only a few survived. They're very collectible now, and I found this one at a toy sale."

These are all obviously salesman's samples; but to muddy the waters even more, one salesman's sample was actually a toy. The question is which came first, salesman's sample, or toy?

As a Rule...

Reuhl Products, Inc., of Madison, Wis., made very detailed toys in the late 1940s and early 1950s – Massey-Harris tractors and combines, construction machinery, boats and more – and one of those toys was called the Cedar Rapids Pitmaster Crushing and Screening Plant, better-known to collectors as the Cedar Rapids rock crusher. With the Reuhl plant out of business for so long, it's difficult to determine if these "rock crushers" were actually first made as toys, like the other toys they manufactured, or meant originally as a salesman's sample, and then also sold as toys.

Reuhl's literature says, "Reuhl toys are designed from the original blueprints; the models are so perfectly in scale that they are used by the original manufacturers for actual demonstration purposes."

Gary Wandmacher, a Reuhl collector from Prescott, Wis., says at one time if you bought a real Cedar Rapids rock crusher, the dealership would give a toy along with it.

"I suppose they were selling them off the shelf, too, at that time," he says. "But like many of the Reuhl toys, they were expensive, and probably cost too much money, so nobody bought them, so they had a hard time getting rid of them. I once heard there was only a small number made, fewer than 800."

Looks Like a Nail, Feels Like a Nail, But Isn't Really a Nail ...

The other main grouping of salesman's samples are those that were usually given as favors, promotions, or Christmas gifts, advertisements simply to remind customers of a company and/or its product. These salesman's samples didn't actually run or work, although, Marvin Fredrick says, they always had a practical use.

"Like a salesman's sample of a jug," he says. "On the bottom, you can pull a tape measure out of it. Or Bradley wash fountains. Take off the top and there's a lighter. Typewriters and adding machines were usually used for paperweights."

Sometimes those had little drawers that held pins, thumb tacks, or paper clips.

Farm-related salesman's samples were common, Marvin says. John Deere made an ash tray out of the metal used in one of its new machines; silo tiles; farm machinery. And among many others, tires.

"Oh," Marvin says, "I once had 125 different salesman's sample tires. Tractor tires are six to eight inches (in diameter). The biggest ones I have are solid rubber tires from the teens, with an ash tray inside the tire that says the brand of the tire. Most of them are Firestone or Kelly-Springfield."

Household items were often made into salesman's samples: sinks, bathtubs, toilets – "Last Saturday I thought I had really found something, an Eljar toilet," he says. "But when I got home I found I already had one, but it was a different color. A lot of the salesman's samples were made in different colors."

Then there are bricks, road signs, sewer pipes (pencils), miniature car fenders – and there in lies a tale. These miniature car fenders advertised a company that made car fenders in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and were given to body shops to drum up business. In 1933, Burma-Shave came up with a rhyme: Free Offer! Free Offer!/Rip a fender/Off your car/Mail it in for/A half-pound jar/ Burma-Shave. Soon Burma-Vita company began getting fenders sent to their Minneapolis plant, for which they cheerfully sent half-pound jars. But then toy fenders started coming in, and its very probable these were the same toy fenders that were salesman's samples.

Hmm... Could be?

Sometimes it's difficult to know if an item is a salesman's sample or not, like several scale models of International Harvester farm machinery at The State Historical Society of Wisconsin collection in Madison, Wis. These include a 1/4-scale McCormick hand rake, called "Old Blue Machine," which is painted black with gold trim; a McCormick Bindlochine binder from 1892 in 1/6-scale; a 1/6-scale vertical corn binder used from 1900-1905, and more. Cindy Knight, formerly F. Gerald Ham archivist for the McCormick-International Harvester Collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison, says "These were single models, not made to sell, and not company premiums. They were really created for the company's historical consciousness, developed to show the evolution of grain harvesting equipment. Of course they were advertising for the company because McCormick could claim that it all started with Cyrus McCormick's reaper."

These binders and corn pickers and the like are quite a bit older than the toys, made in the 19th century and early 20th for company exhibit purposes. These varnished wood models with brass fittings are pieces the museum has drawn on for agricultural history exhibits, because they give the view of what horse drawn equipment was like. They were displayed at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, and were probably patent models.

"Unfortunately, they have deteriorated through the years, and although they are safe in our storage," she says, "they definitely need restoring and preservation stuff done to them."

Some items that look like salesman's samples probably were not, but there's a 50-50 chance they were actually used as salesman's samples at times. Take the Caterpillar toys made by Reuhl. They are so exactly made that Bernard Niewind of Eden Valley, Minn., who collects the Reuhls, says he thinks most of those little construction toys were actually used as salesman's samples from time to time.

"Caterpillar salesman went out to contractors to sell the big equipment, and took the toys along and showed the guy what they looked like," he says, "and a lot of times the contractor ended up with a toy, too."

Salesman's Samples Today

Marvin Fredrick says he was surprised how much in demand the old salesman's samples are today.

"I decided to thin out my collection a little bit, so I took some of them to toy shows, and I found out they were pretty good items," he says. "There was more of a demand for them than I realized, and they sold well."

Salesman's samples are still being made today, although probably not in the quality they were a hundred years ago, when you didn't have to go out in the field to see how a machine worked: you just had a salesman bring the smaller machine to you.

There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a salesman's sample. For example, Marvin says he has a two inch long car transmission with a company name on it, but it's too small for a paperweight, and can't really be used for anything, so by the basic definition, it wouldn't be a salesman's sample.

"Sometimes they're just miniatures," he says.

Then there are patent models, which are not salesman's samples.

"I have a couple of those," Marvin says. "There's usually all the information written out on the bottom of the item, telling all about it, and that it's applying for a patent. These are pretty small, but patent models have to be working ones."

Marvin probably echoes what most collectors of salesman's samples say:

"I just like them, I guess. They're neat. I really enjoy people coming and starting looking at them, and saying, 'Man, I can't believe them.'"

"The point was to make something small that they could give to you that would remember it by," he says. FC 

Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector. 


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