The gentleman on this advertising card declares, “Yes Miss, when traveling, I always drink Van Houten’s Cocoa. It is so sustaining.” This comic scene took place in the mid-1880s when the fast-growing railroads were changing the social landscape in the United States, 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.” 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 They first appeared in the 1840s. Their numbers declined during the Civil War, but then skyrocketed in the post-war boom. By the late 1880s, there was somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 drummers in the country. They soon became part of the national lore. Five menus from their heyday provide a rare glimpse into their world of fraternal relationships and professional associations.
The cartoon on the menu below depicts a different kind of encounter on the train. This dinner was held by the Maine Commercial Travelers’ Association on New Years Day in 1887. The emergence of drummers on the American social scene must have been an intriguing development in the popular imagination. During the late nineteenth century, people were fascinated with the concept of duplicity, which was a natural by product of the strict moral code, and what could be more duplicitous than a traveling salesman?3
The salesmen derived comfort from gatherings like the one above at the Preble House in Portland, where they could drink, talk business, and amuse themselves, as reflected by the inside jokes on the bill of fare. The illustration below from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1885 portrays a group of drummers sitting around the fire at a hotel, laughing at a joke. Their sample trunks, called “grips,” are piled high in the room. Known as “bagmen,” or “knights of the gripsack,” the salesmen used these trunks to carry their samples and catalogs, and a few personal items, such as a Bible, a flask, and a family picture. 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 had to skirt the boundaries of Victorian morality, providing customers with an escape from the strictures of their everyday lives. The ritual of making a sale began with an evening of entertainment, ranging from a fine dinner to an expertly guided tour of the city’s nightlife, before ending in the sample rooms of the hotel where the salesman laid out his goods for inspection.4
|“The Commercial Drummer’s Thanksgiving” (1885)|
There was also a serious side to their get-togethers. Mutual benefit associations were formed to address a myriad of issues, such as securing special concessions from hotels and railroads. In 1887, the New York Times reported on this aspect of their life on the road:
“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.”5
The menu below features a textured illustration of a drummer’s grip. This lavish banquet was held in Bangor, 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 drummers spent most of their time away from home. This menu from Thanksgiving in 1885 comes from the Commercial Hotel in Chicago. This type of hotel was specifically designed to meet the needs of business travelers like salesmen, buyers, and wholesale agents.
Such hotels provided sample rooms and a relaxing atmosphere, where the men could enjoy the camaraderie of fellow travelers, filling the gap left by the absence of a domestic life. Salesmen spent grueling hours on the trains, and riding in a carriage behind a horse, only to arrive at another low-cost hotel. At night, the salesmen often heard the wind whistling through his sparsely-furnished rooms. And a spell of bad weather affected more than just their comfort, for the nation’s agricultural-based economy was still highly sensitive to the vagaries of weather; a poor crop could directly impact their income. Still, life on the road was easier than life on the farm. In 1884, a salesman named William Hutton wrote to his brother Lineus: “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.”
This banquet at the Texas State Fair and Dallas Exposition in 1889 was hosted by the Travelers Protective Association. This organization addressed license fees and other anti-drummer statutes that were passed in local communities, especially in the South. The menu below features local delicacies like wild turkey, buffalo tongue, and Westphalia ham, reflecting the large number of Germans who migrated to Texas.
This ribbon from “Drummer’s Day” at the Texas Fair in 1889 features a small tin drum.
The harsh economic conditions of the 1890s, and the relentless market forces they unleashed, changed the drummers' world. The transformation began with 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, taking out the middlemen. Manufacturing firms also began to institute more control over their sales force, making life on the road much less improvisational. Salesmen were taught professional techniques, assigned territories, and given quotas to meet. In some respects, however, life on the road began to get easier. This 1897 trade card from Arlington Hotel in Tipton, Indiana promotes amenities like electric lights, indoor plumbing, and free heat.
One of the other selling points for this commercial hotel was the quality of its food. The menu on the back shows what was served on one Sunday for dinner.
In the 1890s, large companies also began to take action to protect their corporate image from being besmirched by “mashers,” as men were called who made indecent sexual advances to women in public. Things began to change, at least when it came to appearances. However, the salesmen still had a good time when they got together—this banquet in 1894 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.
2. Drummers first worked for the large wholesale houses in New York and Philadelphia. There was another group of traveling salespeople known as “canvassers” who sold small items directly to customers. Most canvassers were men, although a few women worked in this capacity in the book-selling industry.
3. Duplicity surfaced in nineteenth-century literary works like 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. It was also the theme of popular novels, such as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
4. Timothy B. Spears, 100 Years on the Road, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.
5. New York Times, 26 June 1887.