Miniature Collectibles: SALESMAN SAMPLES
By Don “oltoydoc” Sherwood
When you hold a “salesman sample” gas pump in your hands, you can’t help but be amazed by the workmanship. When you turn the crank handle, a mechanism moves the plunger up and down, just like the full size pump. You can set stops for a quart, ½ gallon or gallon to be dispensed. The lever on top of the spigot turns to open or close the spout. This is not a toy; this is a piece of art to be admired.
A full size Bowser model 41 gas pump stands nearly 5’ tall. The miniature “salesman sample” of the same pump stands only about 8” tall. The fine detail makes one wonder, who was the man with the talent to fabricate this piece?
In the early 1900s, this small pump was a tool. A miniature example of what the traveling salesman could provide for his customers. This sample was most often carried in a form fitted case, to protect it from damage. Once this small pump was shown to the customer, there was no question as to the quality of the products which this company produced.
In the early 1900s the automobile was just arriving on the scene. They needed to be fueled, and the gas station as we know it, did not yet exist. The uses for petroleum products were mostly limited to heating or lighting devices. Kerosene, or stove fuel, was sold at the local general store. Stored in 15 or 30 gallon tanks located inside the general store, a hand crank pump would dispense these fuels into the customer’s container.
Gasoline was a little bit different. It was very flammable and could not be kept inside the store, as were the other fuels. Larger storage tanks needed to be purchased to hold the gasoline, and new pumps that could pump the gasoline longer distances needed to be installed. It was the job of the traveling salesman, with his sample gas pump, to provide an updated system to would be retailers.
Whether a gas pump, a tire, a paper weight, or little glass tubes filled with different grades of oil, these salesman samples were quality items, designed to truly represent the item being sold. Many of the samples I own are not mechanical. No moving parts, however I feel they still belong in the category of salesman samples. Paper weights, like the “El Rico Man”, the “Hayes” gas pump Co., or the “OPW” Gas pump nozzle fit into this area, as they were designed to represent the company’s products. Some ashtrays with company advertising would have been designed as “give away rewards to customers for their business.
Other examples like the “American Oil Pump & Tank Co.” ash tray, were made of cast iron, and had a raised design of one of their large triple compartment rolling dispensers. These would have been designed as examples of their products, and could have been on display in the office of regional distributors.
I’m sure that many collectors have seen the little “Buddy Lee” dolls. These dolls were designed to showcase different clothing articles being sold by the “Lee Uniform” company. These were not toys, nor were they some type of giveaway promotion items. These were “salesman samples”.
I’ve been fortunate to have several examples in my collection, and I’m always looking for additional examples that I don’t have. Truthfully, I know very little about the samples themselves. I can’t help but wonder as I look at them, “Who made this?” Whoever it was, or whoever they were, they were extremely talented individuals.
Did each company have their own small division of engineers, designers, and mechanics who were specifically tasked with providing the salesmen with these miniature samples? Maybe the production of salesman samples was a trade in itself. Maybe a company existed that could take your drawings and schematics, and within a short period of time, produce a sample of your product.
Although I also collect different types of petroleum related literature, I’ve found very little written about salesman samples. In one book I own on the “Bowser” Co. there is a photograph of a few “salesman samples” being displayed. Not a lot of text, just a small subtitle, indicating that these are salesman samples. Turning the page, a second photograph shows several gentlemen sitting around a large table. On the table in front of them, sit two salesman sample dispensers. Behind them, many of the full size products they produce. Not once have I been able to find any information on who originally made these salesman sample dispensers.
The latest addition to my collection is the larger Texaco gas pump, and oil can rack. The pump stands 12” tall, and the oil rack is 13” tall. These items were purchased through an “on line” auction. They were designed and built by Jim McGaughey, a Design Engineer for Erie Meter Systems from about 1946 until 1970. Erie Meter was later purchased by A. O. Smith, and McGaughey worked for both companies. After I received these pieces, I was able to find a family member, who at one time had owned them. He told me that Jim McGaughey was his uncle, and had lived in Erie, Pennsylvania during the time he worked for Erie Meter Systems. He said the oil rack once held three different versions of miniature Texaco oil cans, however, over the years they had been misplaced. During his designing years, McGaughey had submitted several items for patents, including the first digital gas pump. Some of these patents, I was able to find through the “Google” patent search. This history will now remain with these items.
Another one of my favorite samples is the 5 gallon “Rocker” can. The full size cans were designed to have been carried by a handle on top. When you set the can down, a second handle found lower on the can, would stabilize the round can, so it didn’t roll, and spill the fluid inside. If you wanted to pour gasoline from the can into an automobile, you’d simply place one hand, on each of the two handles, and tilt the can until the liquid flowed. This was a remarkable design.
My sample of this can is deceiving. The size is similar to that of a tuna fish can. At first glance I thought someone had attached two little handles, a pour spout, and a screw on lid, to one of these cans. There was no advertisement on the can, what you see in my photograph, was added by myself. My big surprise came, when I opened the screw on cap. Inside the body of this little can, someone had replicated the venting system used on the full size rocker cans. Boy was I amazed. That’s when I realized exactly what I had just found. A salesman sample rocker can. Again, as with so many of the other samples, the detailed workmanship gives it away.
These items are truly works of art, and although very small, they are huge examples of American history. I realize that not all of the items shown in the photographs have descriptions, but there just wasn’t enough room in this article. A future article will address these items.
I would love to hear from other collectors, and their experiences in this area. Any publications or knowledge of the manufacturing of salesman samples would thrill me. I can be contacted most easily through my website at: www.vintagegas.com or through my email at: email@example.com
184 Park Dr.
Shady Cove, OR 97539