Monday, February 13, 2012

Samples or Toys?—That is the Question

QUESTION:  Can you tell me anything about these two small pieces of Chippendale furniture?
Could they have been for little girls to play with?

ANSWER: Your pieces of furniture seem too detailed and too small for say a 6-8-year-old girl to play with. But it’s quite possible that they were samples that a salesmen carried with them to show shopkeepers or rural customers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A salesman would leave items like these in a shop to use as display pieces. General stores needed to carry a lot of items and didn’t have room for full-sized furniture. This finely made armchair and birdcage table, made in the Chippendale style, would have given customers a good idea of their detailing and construction.

Itinerant sales representatives would loan miniatures of their company’s products with country store owners to promote their wares. A shop owner might receive a sample for display if they had enough sales of particular items to warrant it. Most of these samples were 1/4- to 1/3-scale models and were very expensive to make. Therefore, companies only made a small quantity of each.

A salesman sample was in essence a complete, and often working, scale model. Companies used them especially to show off large heavy items like ice boxes, washing machines, furniture, and the like. Each featured the same materials and hardware as the original, only in scaled-down size.

A customer could study the sample, and if he or she wanted to purchase it, they’d give the store owner a deposit, and the owner would order the item from the manufacturer by mail or telegram. The customer would pay the balance of the price when they picked up the item. People who lived in the vast Midwest often had to travel long distances to towns to do their special shopping. Usually, they shopped for many of their needs from catalogs. And sometimes salesmen would stop by to show them samples of their wares. This was especially true if they sold farm machinery, cooking stoves, or washers.

Samples of mechanical items like cooking stoves, for example, featured authentic nickle plating and functional fireboxes, plus a manufacturer’s nameplate. These usually distinguish salesman samples from toys. Toys of the same mechanical items, often made in Germany, were as finely detailed as the samples but had nameplates or other markings from the toy manufacturer. Or none at all which makes distinguishing them from salesman samples more difficult.

Some collectors argue that a salesman sample has to have a case or box that the salesman would have carried it in on his rounds. However, most salesman samples didn’t have cases.

There are two types of salesman's samples on the market today—ones that worked and ones that didn’t. Obviously, as technology progressed through the 1880s and 90s, and through the turn of the century, machines became more prevalent and large ones required salesman samples. Cooking stoves could weigh in at 500+ pounds and took up too much room in shops to be practical. In fact, many homeowners bought them directly from the manufacturer. But no matter if they worked or not, the goal of all salesman's samples was to sell a product. Those salesman's samples that actually worked were more common before 1920. Using a scaled-down sample of their weighty product was a very cost-effective way for the machinery companies to do business.

However, the differences between salesman samples and toys aren't always so obvious. Children’s toy furniture, for example, was smaller than salesman samples and usually not nearly as well made. The samples were the real thing in a reduced size, so they used all the same woods and hardware. Fine pieces like this armchair and table would have possibly been commissioned by a wealthy family and would have been signed by the maker. Salesman samples, on the other hand, had to look as good or better than the actual piece of furniture because people didn't change furniture as often as they do today, so they bought quality pieces that would last.

It’s important for collectors of salesman samples to be wary of imitations. Prices for them can reach astronomical amounts mostly because sellers overprice toys which they sell as salesman samples. And as with all antiques, it’s buyer beware.

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