Want to get your foot in the door on a collecting field with small following?
Close a deal on what must have been Willy Loman's favorite collectibles, salesmen's samples, and you'll be the first on your block to own a rare piece of Americana. These Lilliputian scale models of products traveling salesmen hawked from door to door, farm to farm, and store to store reveal and preserve the amazing craftsmanship, ingenuity, and pride of manufacturing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an era before advertising agencies, TV commercials and shopping malls.
The problem with these little-known relics is that even big-time collectors aren't always sure what they have is the real McCoy. Doll-house miniatures are much too small to be confused with the samples, but children's toys, doll-sized furniture, patent models, party favors, advertising give-aways, salesmen's awards and journeymen's test pieces are easily mistaken for these aids. One way to distinguish them is that the samples were better made, smaller quantities were produced, many were unlabeled and a few still retain their original carrying cases.
It's been hard to learn about salesmen's samples since collectors are quiet about their hobby, thereby keeping competition and prices down. There's no book on the subject, and other than auction previews, there's never been a public exhibition until now. Until Nov. 29, about three dozen pieces from dealer Elli Buk's impressive collection are displayed in the inaugural show at a 24-hour exhibition space at San Francisco International Airport's South Terminal.
A transportation hub is a suitable venue for this show, since salesmen always were passing through towns offering their wares. "What intrigues me about salesmen's samples is that they're almost surreal representations of larger objects and have no intrinsic use other than as a sales pitch. That's what puts them close to a work of art," said Mr. Buk, whose gallery in the Soho district of New York City is filled with scientific, mechanical and industrial antiques resembling modern sculpture.
John Everett of Bodega, Calif., has been traveling the country in search of salesmen's samples for 22 years. He now has a cache of nearly 100. "I'm drawn to their design, mechanics and artistry, and the fact that I would never have the patience to make them," he said. Although some of his best even came with the salesmen's lists of leads and calls, Mr. Everett remains surprised that many don't bear their manufacturer's name. "Since the salesman had the sample with him, perhaps there was no necessity to mark them, but it's hard to imagine making something so exquisite and not putting your name on it," he mused.
The highlight of Mr. Everett's collection is a true-to-life, 16 1/2 -inch-tall porcelainized barber's chair, with cast iron and brass fittings, leather upholstery and its original fitted velvet-lined case. He paid a record $25,300 in 1988 for the turn-of-the-century chair -- one of two known -- at a landmark auction in New Hope, Pa., of 26 salesmen's samples collected by George Haney of Oklahoma City. At the Haney sale, organized by Noel Barrett Antiques and Auctions Ltd. of Carversville, Pa., three table-top sample windmills breezed in at prices ranging from $247.50 to $2,750; a 19-inch-high toilet with a 16-inch-high sink fetched $1,980; a foot-long Coca Cola cooler sold for $3,410; and a 14-inch-high railroad signal switch bearing an 1884 patent date shone at $412.50.
Mr. Everett's collection also includes furniture samples: an extension table, a platform rocker, and a dental cabinet of finer quality than the office-size version. He has a theater seat with a place for stowing a hat, and can outfit it with a sample fedora, bowler, beaver top hat, straw sailor's hat, soldier's helmet or fire chief's hat from his collection.
Why do big people like such small things? Some enthusiasts say collecting miniatures provides a sense of control and order; while many women collect and furnish doll's houses, gadget-like salesmen's samples are miniatures for men, they assert. The surprising quality and intricacy of design give these mini-machines and devices tremendous appeal. There's also fun the shock value: Several collectors display oversized objects alongside their samples, and it looks as though the antiques shrank in the dryer or went on a fad diet.
Auctioneer Barrett's large personal collection of salesmen's samples is tucked into every corner of his living room. "To think that someone was so enamored of his product that he created it in miniature at great expense shows a love of the object that's hard to imagine today," Mr. Barrett observed, while placing a wood and metal mini-sickle bar mower in the center of his pool table so its red-painted chassis and yellow pin-striped wheels contrasted with the green baize table top. The mower came boxed with a note that read: "This is not a toy, do not allow children to play with it. The item in this box cost 10 times that of the full-size version."
Mr. Barrett's samples include a six-story enclosed fire escape painted blue that looks like a silo; his largest is a three-foot long Pullman railroad car with upholstered seats converting into upper and lower berths with green velvet curtains. He also has a burglar-proof grave vault; a jail cell block with a mechanism that locks all six cells at once; a mop wringer; a stacking book case; an ice box; and half a dozen stoves -- parlor stoves, wood stoves, and even a stove that hooks up to a gas line and works.
Doug Frey of Omaha, Neb., collects only agricultural samples with complex moving parts; they're easier to store than the life-size ones some neighbors collect. "I grew up on a farm, and my father and grandfather told me stories about salesmen coming around," Mr. Frey recalled. "Most of my samples were used between 1850 and 1920; after that distributors came along and farmers could go to a showroom and see the full-size models." He even has a sample road grader, which came in a carrying case.
George Archer, who is in the garbage business in Des Moines, Iowa, says he finds salesmen's samples at county fairs. His prizes include a wooden silo, cow-milking stanchion, hog oiler, windmill, steel fencing, gate, pump and several screen door latches, all samples once used by salesmen traveling the Great Plains.
New Yorker Alex Shear's collection has a different tone. A fan of pop culture, Mr. Shear has a suitcase full of tiny 1949 telephones in the newest colors (maroon or fern green cost 9 cents extra a month), and 10 bathtubs show changing styles and colors (white to mint green and pink). He also has a three-foot-tall floor model permanent wave machine patented in 1939.
Rising prices, picky buyers
Although sample prices are rising, collectors are discriminating. Last November, Butterfield & Butterfield, auctioneers in San Francisco, offered a collection of 60 samples and patent models consigned by an East Coast collector. About half the lots offered brought between $1,000 and $5,000 each, 20 percent brought less than $1,000, and almost 25 percent failed to sell, apparently because reserves were too high and several farm machines were incomplete.