Salesman’s samples: Small objects tell a big story

Peddlers, early traveling salesmen, hold a special place in early American culture. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when there were few stores around, the peddler, in his horse and buggy, became a common sight across the United States.

Old Town Canoe Co. salesman’s sample sold at auction for a hammer price of $24,000. The 4 foot display model likely dated to the 1920’s. GUYETTE & DEETER

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, or if nothing else was available they would always have 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. Generally encouraged to dress respectably to inspire confidence with the general public, salesmen were sent into the field with scaled-down versions of real products that they used to demonstrate features to retailers or potential customers.

Chickering Grand Piano, Boston, 19th century, Empire Revival-style piano with floral carved chain borders, ebony and ivory keys, supported on tapered octagonal legs, with gilt-painted lettering sold for $3,690. SKINNER AUCTIONS

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 and 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 ordered. When it was made and shipped, the buyer would complete the transaction

Commonly used in the 19th and 20th centuries, salesman samples were the salesman’s tools to sell the product, and 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 were more common prior to 1920 and can help date a piece. It is easy for a collector to confuse a true salesman sample from children’s toys. Look for great detail and specific aspects of the product. These details are 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 that have been made ever since the engines were made.

Depending on the type, condition, age, and origin of the salesman sample, these small-scale models command high values on the antiques market. Rare salesman samples are the most collectible and 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.

Another clue is that the salesman’s 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 and 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, specimen books (also called blads), just to name a few.

Finally, 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 catalogues (e.g., 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, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her at or via Facebook at Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities.

Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 31 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at