Furniture that caught my eye
  • Furniture with hand-painted designs
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    Auction Finds

    Salesman’s samples as stand-ins for real furniture

    Surprisingly, disinterested buyers had left two small pieces of furniture in two separate locations on outside tables at the auction house. The first one I spotted was a kitchen buffet in honey-colored wood with red drawer pulls.

    The other was an office desk in the same varnished-oak finish with tiny brass pulls. They were too large for a dollhouse and too small for a large doll, reaching no higher than 4 ½” to 8.” I wasn’t sure how they were used until I realized later that they might be salesman’s samples.

    I was familiar with miniature salesman’s samples because I had seen them at antique shows, both in person and on TV. The pieces at auction were about the same size as Lane cedar chests, which were not salesman’s samples but small versions of hope chests that furniture stores gave to high school girls to entice them to buy the full-size ones. Lane Furniture Co. started distributing them to stores in the 1930s.

    miniature kitchen buffet

    A miniature kitchen buffet with bright red pulls.

    A week after these two pieces were discarded, a miniature chest of drawers in varnished mahogany with tiny brass pulls turned up at another auction. Its appearance looked more like real furniture, and the scalloped bottom edges made it more appealing. It was about the same size as the others – seven inches tall.

    Looking them all over, I suspected that they were not salesman’s samples. Each lacked the details that I learned were indicative of those pieces, which were handmade by furniture makers to show to potential customers.

    Googling, I found miniature samples that were said to be from the 18th up to the 20th century. Salesman’s samples were said to be working or non-working scale models of the real item, be it wooden furniture, a stove or a washing machine. The miniatures were convenient for traveling salesman who couldn’t exactly carry a heavy icebox from store to store or home to home in a cart or truck.

    miniature office desk

    Honey-colored miniature office desk.

    Salesman’s samples were exact duplicates of the larger pieces, right down to the type of wood used, the hardware and the attention to detail. Folks did not buy furniture as often back then so the pieces had to be of good quality.

    While these were top of the line, some not-so-perfect miniatures called apprentice pieces were made by helpers who were learning the trade. These, too, were said to be made with just as much care. In some cases, a furniture maker would also produce a miniature sample per specifications of a wealthy client.

    Once a salesman snagged a buyer, a deposit would be made and the item ordered. When it was made and shipped, the buyer would complete the transaction.

    Salesman’s samples apparently included a number of items, as I found on several websites: a Stetson hat, antique grand piano, books, roll-top desks, saddles, travel trunk, washing machine, a Georgian table circa 1780 and a Flexible Flyer sled counter display.

    Salesman's sample chest of drawers

    A miniature chest of drawers with brass pulls.

    All items advertised as salesman’s samples, though, may not be. Most of these miniatures were not marked, unlike their larger versions. Several websites warned collectors to be sure that the pieces are authentic. I found items marked as such selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars on several websites and at auction. Some marked simultaneously as salesman’s sample and dollhouse furniture (which is usually smaller and not as well made) were being offered and sold for less than $100 on eBay.

    The miniatures at auction were sweet. The red knobs on the buffet gave it a noticeable pop, and the desk was one of those familiar old ones that practically no one uses any more. The buffet had corners that resembled dovetailing but were not as clear or precise. The top and sides of the mahogany chest of drawers appeared to have been glued together.

    Real or not, they were all cute in their diminutive state.

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