From the mid-1800s until about 1940, men representing various manufacturing companies crisscrossed the nation acting as salesmen for products ranging all the way from clothes to caskets.

These men traveled, often by train, with several trunks or suitcases filled with samples of the product they were pushing. They also carried miniature samples of such things as furniture, stoves, wagons, and buggies.

Although these salesmen sold their wares mainly to retail stores, some of them also sold door to door. I well remember the day the Home Comfort Stove salesman came to our house, and I will never forget how excited my sister was when this drummer unpacked his little sample stove and set it on the front porch for my mother to examine. To this day, I do not know whether it was my sister’s excitement over the miniature stove or the salesmanship of the drummer which caused my parents to order a new Home Comfort Stove.

On a recent Saturday morning, my wife and I traveled from Meridian, Miss. to Cuba, Alabama, to see what was being offered on the old Highway 11 yard sale. In Cuba, my wife bought a quilt which had been made from swatches of wool fabric that a drummer used to show the material that his company would use in the suits he was selling. The quilt was in good condition, although it had probably been made in the 1930s. This “find” brought back a flood of memories about drummers.

In my hometown, behind the post office, there were two wooden buildings about the size of an ordinary dwelling house. These buildings had been built by the town as a place where drummers could come, unpack their cases, and display their goods on long tables for the local merchants to see and perhaps make selections of the goods they would sell next season.

Hotels in small towns catered to drummers. These small hotels usually had, in addition to a lobby, a large room where salesmen could display their wares. Those who remember the Sessums Hotel in Union and the Benwalt Hotel in Philadelphia will recall rooms off the lobby which were from time to time reserved for salesmen. These displays were called trunk showings because the goods were carried around by the salesmen in trunks. The hotel in Sparta, Georgia, a great pile of brick with stores on the first floor, was know as “The Drummer’s Home” because it catered to traveling salesmen and the owners knew that they would be regular customers.

For years, a casket would appear each October at the Decatur High School Halloween Carnival. This casket was not a regular size coffin and most likely had originally been a sample that was taken to funeral homes by a casket salesman to show the quality of the product he was selling. This casket at one time had been used in ceremonies and rituals conducted by the now defunct fraternal organization known as the Knights of Pithius.

Those who were drummers have worked their way into the American theater and the world of the Broadway musical. The leading character in Meredith Wilson’s ”The Music Man” is Professor Harold Hill. Professor Hill goes from town to town selling musical instruments under the pretext that a community band will keep the young people of the town of River City out of trouble. He also convinces the good people of the town that he knows music and will teach their children how to play the instruments he is selling.

As anyone who saw the stage show or the motion picture knows, Professor Hill was a pretender. He did not know one note of music, but the people of the town were delighted to hear their children at least making sounds through their instruments.

The playwright Arthur Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for his play about a salesman named Willy Loman. Loman’s entire life had been spent on the road drumming up business for the company he represented. When he lost his youth and younger ,men began to outsell him or attract his customers to the products of the companies they represented, Willy Loman simply died of sadness.

The drummer or traveling salesman was so much a part of the American scene until they have become a part of American folklore.

Traveling salesman jokes, some of them quit bawdy continue to be told today. There are all kinds of stories about the horses of a traveling salesman running away, overturning a buggy, and scattering his sample products for several miles along a country road. And there are stories about the merchant’s daughter who ran away with a traveling salesman who happened to have a wife in three other towns.

One wonders what a drummer would think about this age in which we live. Today, it is possible to shop on the internet, or to pick up the phone and order some product advertised on television. No doubt the drummer would be amazed to take the elevator from floor to floor in Atlanta’s Merchandise Mart where samples of products are displayed ranging from imported fabric from India to food from Thailand.