The tongue-in-cheek advertisement on the trade card shown above depicts a pompous gentleman declaring, “Yes Miss, when traveling, I always drink Van Houten’s Cocoa. It is so sustaining.” This comic scene takes place in the 1880s, a period when the railroads were changing the social landscape, bringing strangers together in social settings far from their communities.1 The expansion of rail mileage after the Civil War also facilitated industrial growth, causing the rise of a new breed of traveling salesmen called “drummers,” an Americanism whose origins remain obscure.
Appearing on a menu for a small gathering of drummers in 1887, this cartoon depicts a different kind of encounter on the train, seemingly intended to stir up jokes and commentary over dinner. The Victorians were fascinated with the concept of duplicity which was a natural by-product of their strict moral code. It often surfaced in literary works, such as playwright Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a comic play about the hypocrisy of society when it came to the relationship between the sexes. Duplicity was also the theme of nineteenth-century novels like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey .
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 drummers briefly declined during the Civil War, before their numbers skyrocketed in the post-war boom. By the late 1880s, there were somewhere 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, as reflected by several menus from their heyday, providing a rare glimpse into their world of fraternal relationships and professional associations.
The cartoon shown above appeared on the 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. However, evenings spent together talking business, telling jokes, and drinking could also dissolve into boyish behavior, as reflected by the illustration and 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 small 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,” the men carried their samples, catalogs, and a few personal items—things 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 had his goods laid out 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. The mutual benefit associations were formal organizations that addressed the myriad of issues confronting the traveling salesmen, such as securing special concessions from the hotels and railroads. Nevertheless, the drummers were more than able to hold their own, as reported 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 illustration of a drummer’s grip on the cover. Honoring one of their colleagues, this lavish banquet at the Bangor House in Maine was held on Thursday, 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.
Sometimes the men were on the road during the Thanksgiving holiday, as reflected by the 1885 menu shown below from the Commercial Hotel in Chicago. Serving an exclusively male clientele comprising business travelers like drummers, buyers, and wholesale agents, such hotels provided good food, sample rooms, and a relaxing atmosphere. It was in places like this that the men enjoyed the camaraderie of other travelers, filling the gap left by the absence of a domestic life. Despite these moments of respite, however, life on the road could be hard. After grueling hours on the train, or riding behind a horse in a carriage, the salesman often ended his day in a low-cost hotel where the wind whistled through his sparsely-furnished room 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, as joyfully reflected in a letter from salesman William Hutton 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 held by the Travelers Protective Association, an organization addressing issues like the license fees and other anti-drummer statutes that popped 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 German-Americans living in 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 new mail order houses and the growth of advertising. Publishing their first catalog in 1888, Sears, Roebuck, and Co. shipped goods directly to rural households. Other changes were brought about by a severe depression that began in 1893. Manufacturing firms began to institute more control over their sales force, making life on the road much less improvisational. Required to record their every move in sales reports, the salesmen were now taught sales techniques, assigned specific territories, and given quotas to meet. Nevertheless, despite the more regimented business environment and the tough economic conditions, life on the road was beginning to get easier in some respects. The trade card shown below from Arlington Hotel in Tipton, Indiana promotes new amenities like electric lights, toilets inside the house, and hot and cold running water. And if that were not enough, there was no charge for heat.
However, the main selling point for this commercial hotel was its food. This is reflected by the dated menu on the back, showing the bill of fare for the Sunday dinner on October 31, 1897.
Other things were also changing by the 1890s. For one thing, large companies did want their public image being besmirched by “mashers,” the name given to men who made indecent sexual advances to women in a public places. The type of incident jokingly depicted on the cover of the menu in 1887 increasingly became a thing of the past, at least when it came to appearances. Nevertheless, the salesmen still got together for a good time—an inscription on the back of this invitation from the Traveling Mens Club reports that their annual banquet in 1894 was not over 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.