Salesman's Samples: Good Things Come in Small Packages

Salesman's samples used by machinery companies salesmen as easy, useful marketing item

| August 2000

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."