A common visitor to small towns a century and more ago was the travelling salesman, often referred to as drummer.
These men, representing importers, distributors and manufacturers, travelled the country, calling on stores with the goal of signing them up to a shipment from their company, and hoping to form a long-term relationship.
Initially, the salesmen would rent display rooms that the larger hotels set up to cater to their trade. By the 1870s, as the rail network reached maturity, the salesmen would call on individual retailers, renting buggies in the larger towns in order to call on rural stores.
On the whole, they did not enjoy a good reputation. Some represented firms held in low repute, and many of the men were considered practitioners of sharp practices. To the public they were easily recognized as passengers in the smoking sections of trains, puffing on cheap black cigars and exchanging shop talk, ribald stories and terrible jokes with their compatriots.
The heyday of the drummers was from the 1870s to World War I, but a number still plied their trade into the 1930s, and a few later than that. Several factors worked to bring about their demise. Stores began organizing into chains, with internal distribution channels. With better communication and transportation, storekeepers began ordering directly by mail and phone, rather than wait for the arrival of the salesmen. Also important was the advent of trade journals, directed to storekeepers in various lines such as drugs, groceries and hardware. They carried ads for manufacturers and distributors, who encouraged storekeepers to order directly from them.
The salesmen and drummers also organized. Though it is virtually unknown today, the major organization for travelling salesmen was called the Drummers’ Snack Club. Organized in the early 1890s, it served as both a professional group and a social club.
The Drummers’ Snack Club had its origins in the mind of a man called Bill Algie, from the hamlet of Alton, east of Erin. Algie was a member of a prominent local family. Among his abilities he was a stirring orator, and he functioned as the leading local booster. He came up with the idea of forming an association of travelling salesmen, who would come to Alton for a couple of days of games, eating and socializing, and in the process boosting the local economy. The organization would also have a serious purpose, as an association of salesmen with a regular annual meeting, to be held at the start of each year. Algie served as secretary, and a salesman named Bill Colville served as the first president.
Records are sketchy and ambiguous, but it appears that Algie organized the first Drummers’ Snack for the Friday and Saturday of the last weekend of July 1892. The event, it appears, was a successful one, and it helped in the organization of travelling salesmen into a professional association. That was quite an achievement. Salesmen were notoriously independent, and were normally reluctant to discuss their techniques with others.
Bill Algie continued to guide the Drummers Snack until his death in 1914. By then the affair was no longer held in Alton. Partially it was a victim of its own success. Alton lacked the ability and facilities to stage a big event. As well, though Alton was served by two Canadian Pacific lines, both were branch lines. Neither was convenient and connections were not the best.
The annual Drummers’ Snack quickly established itself as a popular event with travelling salesmen. Many came with wives and families, and by 1905 the crowd would exceed 1,000 people.
The fall 1907 issue of Hardware Merchandising published an extensive account of the Snack held that summer. By then the program varied little from year to year. Friday afternoon began with some games and socializing, as visitors arrived in Alton. Volunteer residents took in many of the visitors for the night. Though there were then five hotels in Alton, they could accommodate only a small portion of the arrivals.
The evening concert was a mixture of professional entertainers and salesmen, who were invariably extroverts, and anxious to join in the spirit of things. Drummers offered songs, recitations, and other entertainment for the benefit of the locals and their colleagues. At Alton, that year, the program included the debut of a play, “The Darky’s Dream,” a recreation of plantation life portrayed by drummers done up in blackface, with a script that was in extremely poor taste, even for the standards of 1907. But by then, bad taste in entertainment and atrocious humour had become hallmarks of the Drummers’ Snack.
Saturday’s program consisted largely of competitions and races, some of them humorous, and many that were open to local residents as well as drummers. Local organizations and charities ran various refreshment stands. For them, the event was a major fundraiser. Crowds began to disperse in late afternoon, in time for people to catch the trains out of town. The railway obligingly added extra cars to accommodate the rush. Others left town by buggy.
The size of the event in 1907 and 1908 made plain the fact that it had outgrown the hamlet of Alton. In 1909 the Drummers’ Snack moved to Erin, to Oakville in 1910 and Georgetown in 1911. Towns competed for the honour of hosting the event.
The Drummers’ Snack seems to have been discontinued during World War I, As well, Bill Algie, the founder and the main organizer of the event, died in 1914. But after the war it grew new legs, and resumed under fresh guidance, which included other members of the Algie family.
After the war, Bill Algie’s son stepped up to guide the annual event. By then a traveller named Bill Meen was secretary of the organization. In June of 1923 they decided to bring the Snack to Elora. The pair were in town on July 9 to discuss arrangements with an enthusiastic Elora council. They made arrangements for billeting about 200 people on the Friday night, and for feeding a crowd anticipated at 1,000 on the Saturday. They expected that the majority of visitors would arrive by motor car on the Saturday morning.
Friday night would see the customary concert, to be staged in the park at the junction of the rivers. In case of bad weather, the concert would move to the arena, then located on Chalmers Street across from the school..
Saturday would feature athletic competitions, a couple of lacrosse games, sporting competitions on the Grand River, and a parade. Children who participated in the parade would receive a pass to all other events. The women of St. Johns Church stepped forward with an offer to serve lunch on Gilbert Main’s lawn, and the Methodist women planned to sell refreshments on W.H. Stafford’s lawn. For those still in town on Saturday night, there would be films shown at the old Chalmers Church on Henderson Street. The sky threatened a downpour all day Friday, but the rain held off. Organizers believed that the danger of rain kept the crowds down that night. The Brunswick Trio, a popular act from London, headlined the Friday night entertainment. There were several other notable acts, but the salesmen supplied the bulk of the show, with offerings of hoary old songs and their corny brand of humour. The show ran for almost four hours. Afterward there was a street dance at the main downtown corner, on the recently laid concrete pavement. Dancing went on until after 2:00am.
The games on the Saturday came off well. As usual, the Drummers tried to include locals in many of the events. It was fortunate that they did, because the turnout of travelling salesmen was disappointing. There seems to be no published estimates of the crowd size, but it appears that the numbers were less than half what was expected. To some it was clear that the event had become old-fashioned. Many younger people, both locals and travelling salesmen, considered it hopelessly square and hokey, and gave it a wide berth.
With the scant crowds, the church groups scrambled to make use of the food they had for sale. Overall, the booths counted themselves lucky to break even. A couple sustained small losses. Local people, rather than drummers and their families, dominated the winners list for the games. Nevertheless, most of the people involved were happy with the event. Some even planned for a bigger and better Drummers’ Snack event in Elora for the next summer.
The secretary of the organization, Bill Meen, wanted to return to Elora in 1924. That did not happen. It appears that the Drummers’ Snack Club did not hold another big event after 1923.