The pompous gentleman on this advertising card declares, “Yes Miss, when traveling, I always drink Van Houten’s Cocoa. It is so sustaining.” The comic scene takes place in the 1880s, a period when the fast-growing railroads were changing the social landscape, bringing strangers together in social settings far from home.1 Rapid industrial growth also brought about the rise of a new breed of traveling salesmen called “drummers,” an American word whose origins remain obscure.
This cartoon appeared on a menu for a small gathering of drummers in 1887. It depicts a different kind of encounter on the train, one seemingly intended to stir up jokes over dinner. The Victorians were fascinated with the concept of duplicity, a natural byproduct of their strict moral code. It often surfaced in nineteenth-century literary works, such as playwright Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a comedy about the hypocrisy of society when it came to the relationship between the sexes. Duplicity was also the theme of popular novels like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The emergence of drummers on the American scene was a fascinating social development in the Victorian imagination, for who could be more duplicitous than a traveling salesman? Distinctly different from hawkers and peddlers, the drummers were a new cultural phenomenon, the enterprising foot soldiers of capitalism, bringing its bounty to the hinterlands.2 First appearing in the 1840s, the number of drummers declined during the Civil War, but then skyrocketed in the post-war boom. By the late 1880s, there were between 60,000 to 100,000 drummers in the country, constantly moving from town to town. The traveling horde soon became part of the national lore. Menus from their heyday provide a rare glimpse into their world of fraternal relationships and professional associations.
The cartoon shown above appeared on this menu from a dinner of the Maine Commercial Travelers' Association on New Years Day in 1887. The men derived comfort and strength from gatherings like this one at the Preble House in Portland. Evenings talking business, telling jokes, and drinking often dissolved into boyish behavior, as reflected by the inside jokes on this menu.
Such get-togethers were renowned for their merriment. The illustration below from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1885 portrays a group of salesmen sitting around the fire at a hotel, laughing at a joke. Their sample trunks, called “grips,” are piled high in one corner of the room. Also known as “bagmen,” or “knights of the gripsack,” these men only carried their samples, catalogs, and a few personal items like a Bible, a flask, and a family picture in the trunks for which they became known. Indeed, the drummers embodied a dichotomy, performing a delicate balancing act that required worldly knowledge of urban pleasures and shrewdness in rural customs. On one hand, they needed to project an upright image to gain the trust and respect of their customers, an essential component of success at a time when appearances were highly valued. And yet to be successful, they also needed to skirt the boundaries of Victorian morality, providing their customers with an escape from the strictures and mundane routine of their lives. Evenings of entertainment, ranging from oyster dinners to expertly guided tours of the city’s nightlife, ended in the sample rooms of the hotel where the salesman laid out his goods for inspection. It was all part of the ritual of making a sale.3
|“The Commercial Drummer’s Thanksgiving” (1885)|
There was also a serious side to their small conventions. Mutual benefit associations were were formed to address the myriad of issues confronting the traveling salesmen, such as securing special concessions from the hotels and railroads, although the drummers were more than able to hold their own, as reflected by this report by the New York Times in 1887:
“Railroads and hotels have for the most part taken peculiar pains to propitiate the drummer, who alone of mortal men dares return the stare of the proud hotel clerk with a haughtiness equal to his own. The best rooms in the house are reserved for him and his samples. For him the barkeeper exhibits unwonted alacrity and produces recondite and exclusive bottles. For him, when he takes the Sunday dinner which is his one leisurely meal of the week, the waiter hastens to secure the choicest cuts and what the drummer knows as ‘a full line’ of the earliest vegetables. And this the waiter does uncheered by the sordid prospect of tips. ‘There are two levers for moving men,’ remarked the great Napoleon, ‘interest and fear.’ Most men approach the waiter through the former; the drummer alone wields the latter.”4
The menu shown below features a textured cover illustration of a drummer’s grip. This lavish banquet honoring one of their colleagues was held at the Bangor House in Maine on November 20, 1890, one week before Thanksgiving. The bill of fare features distinctive dishes like partridge stew a la Richelieu, "marrowfat peas," and steamed hickory-nut pudding with brandy sauce.
The men could also be away from home on Thanksgiving, as reflected by this menu from the Commercial Hotel in Chicago in 1885. Designed specifically for business travelers like drummers, buyers, and wholesale agents, these hotels provided good food, sample rooms, and a relaxing atmosphere. It was in such places that the men enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow travelers, filling the gap left by the absence of a domestic life. Nevertheless, life on the road could be hard. After grueling hours on the train, or riding behind a horse in a carriage, the salesmen often ended their day in low-cost hotels where they could hear the wind whistling through their sparsely-furnished rooms at night. In fact, the weather affected more than their comfort, it also had an impact on their income, for the nation’s agricultural-based economy was still highly sensitive to the vagaries of weather. Still, life on the road was easier than life on the farm, reflected by salesman William Hutton in a joyful letter to his brother Lineus in 1884, “I have made plenty of money since I’ve been off the farm & don’t have to work half so hard…Come out and see the world.”
The “drummers' banquet” at the Texas State Fair and Dallas Exposition in 1889 was hosted by the Travelers Protective Association, an organization addressing issues like the license fees and other anti-drummer statutes that were popping up in local communities, especially in the South where the traveling salesmen were seen as encroaching on their way of life. With a ribbon from the event still pinned to the cover, the menu shown below features local delicacies like wild turkey, buffalo tongue, and Westphalia ham, a dish reflecting the large number of Germans who migrated to Texas.
Another ribbon from “Drummer’s Day” at the Texas Fair in 1889 features a small tin drum.
During the next decade, the onslaught of harsh economic conditions and relentless market forces (the so-called creative destruction of capitalism) changed the drummers' world. The first phase of the transformation was driven by the emergence of mail order houses and the growth of advertising. Publishing their first catalog in 1888, Sears, Roebuck, and Co. shipped goods directly to rural households. Five years later, a severe depression brought about other changes. Manufacturing firms instituted more control over their sales force, making life on the road much less improvisational. The salesmen were now taught sales techniques, assigned specific territories, and required to record their every move in sales reports. They were even given quotas to meet. Despite the more-regimented business environment, life on the road began to get easier in some respects. The trade card shown below from Arlington Hotel in Tipton, Indiana promotes new amenities like electric lights and indoor plumbing. In addition, there was no charge for heat.
However, the main selling point for this commercial hotel was its food. The menu on the back of this card shows the bill of fare for dinner on Sunday, October 31, 1897.
Other things changed in the 1890s. For one thing, large companies did want their public image to be besmirched by “mashers,” which was the name given to men who made indecent sexual advances to women in public. The type of incident depicted on the menu from 1887 was becoming a thing of the past, at least when it came to appearances. Nevertheless, the salesmen still had a good time when they got together—the inscription on the back of this invitation from a banquet of the Traveling Mens Club in 1894 notes that the group did not disperse until two o'clock in the morning.
1. There was 53,000 miles of track in operation in the U.S. in 1870, expanding to over 163,000 miles by 1890. It finally peaked in 1916 at 254,000 miles.
2. The first drummers worked for the large wholesale houses in New York and Philadelphia. There was also a group of traveling salespeople known as “canvassers” who sold small items directly to customers. The culture was mostly male, with only a few women employed as canvassers in the book-selling industry.
3. Timothy B. Spears, 100 Years on the Road, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.
4. New York Times, 26 June 1887.