These Cute Collectibles Tell a Story
Salesman samples are collected by antique enthusiasts who are captured by the small treasures and their social significance. These perfectly made little products were scale models of real items that were sold by companies (usually through traveling salesmen) back in the early 20th century.
As a cultural artifact, salesman samples seem even more quaint today in the era of online shopping.
Many salesman samples are working machines that today are often mistaken for doll or children’s furniture. Naturally, these are a fun collectible for antique enthusiasts and make for a great conversation piece.
Realistic in detail, these little stoves, gadgets and household items were made during the era when time was willingly spent creating a model that was perfect in every way to entice the consumer to buy.
Some people mistakenly think salesman samples are really patent models. The difference is difficult to determine unless you’re a real pro but to antique collectors it is important.
Though both patent models and salesman samples are miniature examples of machines or new inventions, the patent model was actually made by inventors and their craftsmen to earn a patent in the American market.
They are often marked with the name of the model maker-workman and date of issue from the U.S. Patent Office. Beginning in 1790, any U.S. inventor had to show a working model to earn an official patent from the U.S. Patent Office.
Until the early 1900s this requirement continued. The skill and craftsmanship of these working models are amazing. Examples can be found of washing machines, tools, typewriters and lots of goofy gadgets too.
Salesman samples followed and were used by salesmen to show their product line to buyers in department and hardware stores. Products as diverse as bathtubs, bedsprings, toilets and windows, were sold with these precise samples.
For example, the Tappan gas range shown in today’s column works if it’s connected to a gas line. It has all the parts down to an attractive paint job and was used as a salesman sample around 1900.
I have read in antique reference books that the definite sign of a salesman sample is the carrying case that goes along with any real sample. So if you come across a small model of a machine or household item in a case, you know you’ve got a treasure!
Rare examples are those not produced in high quantities and value is linked to this, along with the condition and the presence of a traveling case and advertising materials. Some of the rarest might be worth thousands of dollars to collectors.
Most collectors stumble upon a salesman sample at an estate sale or auction and are intrigued by the careful workmanship and beauty of the design. Then when they realize the history and fun of displaying these little gems, they get hooked.