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Sales History: The Sales "Drummer" and "Bagmen"

· sales history

Do you know where the term “drumming up business” came from? How about “carrying a bag”? 

They both came from “drummers” and “bagmen” - the salespeople from the 1800s. 

A few weeks ago, while up in Wisconsin, the distinct sound of the song “the entertainer” was heard through the windows. It was the ice cream truck, slowly crawling down the street. It permeated our attention from at least a block away. Our kids heard it. I grabbed my wallet. We all threw on our shoes and headed outside to wait for it.

The song...played to let us know they were coming.

The same can be said about the 1800’s traveling salespeople - known as “drummers”. 

These “Drummers”were independent agents, who represented the distributors and the wholesalers. 

Imagine having something to sell and having limited means to sell it yourself, like wallpaper, stationary, rugs, or really anything. You might hire a drummer to represent your product on the road - selling to retailers, or even individual consumers. The drummer is also representing a number of products, traveling town to town looking for new customers, taking orders, and providing feedback back from what they’ve seen on the road. 

They were drumming up business

Why the name “drummers”?

These individuals were known for a few things - some good and some bad. They took samples from the wholesaler or distributor and carried it with them in what was typically a wooden box with some leather stretched over it. 

Similar to the ice cream truck, as these individuals went into towns, they would often bang on their leather box, like a drum, to let people know there were coming.

At a certain point in the 1800’s, individuals and towns looked forward to the drummers coming to town. I mean, who doesn’t look through a Sharper Image catalog or online when Amazon has their new technology offerings. Drummers brought stuff from outside of town - where many times it was individuals’ opportunities to have fun seeing what’s for sale. So, by drumming their box, which apparently sounded like a dampened snare drum, the sound became recognizable.

Beyond that purpose for drumming, during the Civil War from 1861-1865, drummers had to do so to keep from being shot at; especially in the South, where, if you were a stranger, you might be perceived to be a “Yankee spy” to the landowners!

Drummers also took it a step further. In cases where retailers would come to a central location to meet all of the drummers, those drummers would actually bang drums to welcome them to town at the train station! 

At the time, there were lots of drummers. They sold lots of different goods, and had a tremendous amount of pressure on them from the wholesalers and distributors to “have a full order book”. They had to know their competitors, too. And, they had to stand out…primarily focused on relationship building to do so.

So - they had to know the products inside and out that they were selling. And - they had to have a collection of Yarns.

Yarns? No - not fabric, although oddly in an article in Fibre and Fabric Magazine from right around the turn of the century, a drummer, “must have some pretty slick yarns up his sleeve to bait his fish with.”

Yarns were funny stories. Jokes. Comics. Funny in air quotes, which I’ll explain momentarily.

The drummers were considered artists - in that,

”He treats his shrewest customer as if he were a child, plays with him, humors him, threatens him, cajoles him, and finally pulls out his order book and commences to write down the biggest order from a man who never meant to buy at all.”

The thought was, if they could get a buyer to listen to a good yarn, that was half the battle. There were magazines dedicated to yarns for the Drummers. I actually managed to track down a couple on eBay - The Drummers Yarn and the New Drummers Yarn magazines were their regular reads to stock up on the stories and jokes they’d tell. 

The stories and jokes are pretty mindless. I’ve read through a bunch of them, and I don’t think I’ve managed to laugh yet - but whatever.

Here’s one joke that I least I understand - from my edition of Drummers Yarns - Piping Hot, from sometime in the 1890s. 

I’ve inferred that it’s a man & woman having a conversation:

  • The man says, “I make it a rule to never speak unless I know what I am talking about.” 
  • The woman replies, “Aren’t you afraid of losing your voice for the want of practice?” 

That may be the best joke in the edition I have - so you know where the bar is set.

Anyway - the drummer would come to town and stay the night. Maybe a couple of nights. After getting the buyer to be his buddy, he’d ask if there are any good places to stop, then invite the buyer to come along. 

Drummers - hard drinking. Back slapping. Joke telling salespeople - selling on relationships. 

Other Things I Found...

As I went through piles of magazines and books I found some interesting tidbits:

First, the drummers resented the idea that because they appeared to be so happy, that their job must be easy.

As one said in a 1904 article from Salesmanship Magazine:

 “Don’t think because we look so jolly and good tempered all the time that we’re always getting the jackpot. It’s one of the tricks of the business to look chipper and dapper all the time, and to swear that you are doing plenty of business.”

In Canada - an article in the Mail and Empire Magazine in Toronto in 1903 tried to argue that resenting Drummers is misguided, saying “There is probably no class of people in Canada who hold a more important position in the country.” - estimating that 75% of the business of the country was done through these individuals. 

Before the turn of the century in 1900, the drummer was often welcomed, and was definitely expected. Towns and buyers looked for them “as regularly as they looked for sunshine and flowers in June and sleighing in January.” 

They didn’t push. They opened their samples, booked the orders, and partied.

The drummers hated the early 1900’s. As the progressive era of the Industrial Revolution exploded, combined with the easing of travel and communication, manufacturers all hired their own salespeople. They complained that they now had to really “hustle from the moment he leaves the warehouse steps until he returns. He has to catch trains all hours of the night, in all kinds of weather. He knows there are travelers in his own line ahead of him and others following closely on the track. No matter how sad, sick or weary he may be, he must wear a pleasant smile.” 

The sales revolution had begun, and the drummers were going extinct. 

In 1908’s Business Philosopher Magazine, I found this quote: 

“The typical, flamboyantly dressed, melodramatic, circus-comedy drummer of the joke-shops has had to make way for the quiet, keen, strictly-business, thoroughly-inearnest, resourceful professional man. Yes, salesmanship is now one of the professions - and one of the most important.”

I found articles sprinkled throughout the first decade of the 20th century trying to hold on - in one article it was proclaimed that the Drummers of America represent the highest order of labor as a class on the face of the Earth - collecting salaries only lower than the President of the United States. 

And the phrase “carrying a bag”?

That comes from the Drummer, too. It was just another name for them - specifically in the UK, coined prior to drummers primarily traveling via train. There were individuals called “The Bagmen”. 

A 1903 article in the Saturday Evening Post explained that while the drummer was carrying a box he (and in some cases she) would bang to announce their arrival or to greet retailers, the bagman was carrying bags - draped on either side of the horse they rode in on, and had many samples to show. No noise making or announcements. Carrying a bag meant - carrying a bag. Quite literally. The name the “Bagman” stuck even as Drummers became the norm in the US - as the name for the same in the UK. 

So, what can you do with this information? Nothing - maybe just impress your friends with an accurate explanation of where the oft spoken phrases drumming up business and carrying a bag came from. 

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