Drummers and Others II
Bill Long 2/3/06
The dramatic expansion of the railroads after the Civil War helped provide the context for the proliferation of drummers/traveling salesmen, even though there were drummers on the road in the 1840s and 1850s. But the most significant development in the period from 1850-1880 were the "anti-drummer statutes. These were laws that saddled these salesmen with significant license fees if they were to sell their goods out of their home territory. As Professor Hollander says, annual license fees of $50, $100, $200 or more were very common. But it was not as if only the states themselves were the ones who assessed these fees; many cities established their own licensing ordinances. Hollander quotes the NY Times, which reported that one traveling salesman paid $3,000 a year for licenses, while several paid $1,000. In comparison, the average earnings in 1889 of an accomplished salesman of jewelry and drugs was only $2,500 per year, while the top salesmen would be lucky to make $8,000 per year.
License fees, then, were so high as to encourage drummers to try to evade, in any way possible, the paying of the fees. Some would take their chances and try to sell locally without a license. Some would try to pay off local merchants so that they could be named an "agent" of the local merchant. Other kinds of bribery of officials was common. Some drummers were arrested, thrown in jail or otherwise "drummed" out of town. Professor Hollander gives the example, probably exaggerated, where the Society of Commerical Travelers argued in one of its pamphlets that it could cite fifty cases of honorable citizens who had been thrown into a criminal's dungeon for pursuing the honorable calling as a salesman.
Reasons for the Anti-Drummer Sentiment
Reasons for antipathy to this new class of salesmen are not hard to suggest. From the perspective of the South, which had some of the highest licensing fees, the salesmen were perceived as purveyors not so much of goods but of a cultural lifestyle (as Northerners) that they despised. In addition, local merchants would not like the traveling interlopers. Every good bought on the front steps would potentially diminish their own profits at home. But it was the so-called "tax burden" argument that seemed to win the day. That is, the argument was made in the absence of license fees, that the drummers would simply come into town, gain sales, leave town and not pay anything to the community which had tolerated their entrance.
Even though the drummer evoked such strong antipathy across the country, he represented the leading edge of a new phenomenon in America. He was the one who would carry the virtues of capitalism and the availability of goods to the hinterlands. Historian Robert Twyman said it well, in describing this salesman:
"Setting out with his grips, a couple of trunks-full of samples or 'swatches' of goods, and his vest bedecked with lodge emblems, the Field (Chicago) traveling man journeyed patiently and laboriously from one town to th enext within his allotted territory. Arriving in town, he engaged a room at the local hotel and one of the other hotel rooms. Having several day searlier sent an advance card to each of the merchants in town notifying them that he would be there, he was now ready for business," quoted in Friedman, 68.
Indeed, such salesmen were also known as "Knights of the Grip."
Conclusion--Other Terms and Issues
The life of the traveling salesman continues to this day, though it has taken a considerable hit in the past 30 or so years. Aiding the drummers in the 1870s and 1880s were two US Supreme Court decisions (one, in 1871, invalidating a Maryland licensing statute because it charged differential rates for in-state and out-of state traveling salesmen; one in 1887, invalidating a Tennessee anti-drummer statute which charged local and out-of-state traveling salesmen the same fee, but which nevertheless was unconstitutional because of the assumption that local houses need not send out drummers), which curtailed the ability of the states to assess licensing fees--even though the issue ultimately persisted well into the 20th century.
Thus the traveling salesmen continued his work, canvassing, selling, drumming and even "knocking." This last term was used by John Patterson, the founder of National Cash Register Co., to denote people who would undermine the competition by "knocking" their products. "Knockers" were look-alike copies of competitors' products, built in a way to avoid patent violations but were cheaper versions of the competitors' products. They were rigged in a way to see if the wrong amount would be rung up when keys were punched. By proving the competition faulty, he could provide additional reasons why NCR products were superior.
And then, we close with the "masher," the person that the sales managers wanted to make sure that their salesmen would not become. A masher was a "womanizer; a man who makes indecent sexual advances to a woman, esp. in a public place." Because the salesmen were on the road all the time, the temptation to become such a character was very strong. But the large enterprises wanted their men to be "professionals"--men who had families and home loyalties and a sense that their profession was a noble calling. Somehow, that idea has never fully caught on...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long