In the early 20th Century, a knock on the door might have come from a salesperson offering the latest in cosmetics or household supplies. How did salespeople at that time display their product line? What kind of vehicle did they use? A circa 1919 J. R. Watkins Co. trade catalog offers a few ideas.
The trade catalog is titled Catalogue and Price List of Wagons (circa 1919) by J. R. Watkins Co. As might be guessed from the catalog title, it mainly illustrates wagons. However, it also includes product sample cases for Watkins salesmen to carry when visiting customers.
As the catalog points out, first impressions can make a difference. It explains, “The man who is bright and neat and who drives up with a lively team and a handsome Watkins wagon finds his battle half won.” For that reason, J. R. Watkins Co. offered their salesmen specific types of wagons which were lettered with the Watkins name, salesman’s name, and types of products sold, such as extracts, spices, perfumes, etc. This was a form of advertising, and as the catalog further emphasizes, a Watkins wagon “will quickly pay for itself.”
The Watkins wagons were built by DeKalb Wagon Co. of DeKalb, Illinois. These wagons were ordered by J. R. Watkins Co. in large quantities and then sold to the Watkins salesmen. In the catalog, J. R. Watkins Co. explains that they sold the “wagon for cash at about what it costs us ordering in large quantities.”
For salesmen who preferred not to pay by cash, another option was offered at a higher cost. This was to buy it “on time” and charge it to their account along with goods ordered. In this situation, the salesman’s sureties were also required to sign the order.
What were the benefits of buying a Watkins wagon? For one thing, these wagons provided a convenient option for displaying products. A handy shelf was created by simply opening the rear door. The hinges of the rear door were at the bottom, allowing it to open out and making it level with the bottom of the body of the wagon. This created a shelf, or display area, for showing products to customers. The wagon illustrated below, labeled as Watkins Wagon Nos. 17 to 20, shows the shelf created from the rear door. For security purposes, the door had a lock and key.
Besides a place to display product samples when visiting customers, the shelf might also have been used as a workspace for organizing products in the wagon’s storage compartments, bins, and drawers.
As shown in the illustration below, four drawers were located above the rear door/pull-out shelf. Above those drawers, there was a supply bin. It was accessible from the driver’s seat. Another compartment or bin was located under the driver’s seat while four additional drawers and a bin were situated in front of the driver’s seat.
The catalog mentions the Watkins wagon will “quickly pay for itself.” How was that possible? Perhaps by using the wagon itself as a means for advertising. This was accomplished through custom lettering on the exterior of the wagon.
The wagon drew attention to the Watkins name in various ways. As shown in the above illustration, the company name “WATKINS” was painted towards the top of the rear of the wagon. It was also painted on the front of the wagon. A colored lithographed transfer was placed on the side of the wagon with a picture of Mr. J. R. Watkins, the founder of the company, along with an image of the company’s plant buildings in Winona, Minnesota.
To further emphasize the company name, “WATKINS PRODUCTS” was lettered beneath the image of the company buildings. The name of the salesman and his address, such as city and state, were painted on the rear of the wagon above the door. Advertising the company’s ability to sell directly to customers, the wagon included lettering on the side near the top which read “DIRECT TO CONSUMER.”
The wagon also advertised the variety of Watkins products sold by their salesmen. Painted on the wagon’s lower front panel were the words, “EXTRACTS, SPICES, TOILET SOAPS, PERFUMES” while “STOCK & POULTRY TONIC” was painted on the lower side panel by the door. The Watkins wagon below (bottom), labeled as Watkins Wagon, Nos. 57 to 60, is lettered with “WATKINS REMEDIES” on its side. Overall, the wagon was painted in russet, a reddish-brown color.
What happened when a Watkins salesman arrived at a customer’s home? How did he present items for sale? Perhaps he set them out on the rear wagon door/shelf or maybe he used a Watkins Sample Case. Sample cases provided a way to carry products to customers in a neat and organized manner. J. R. Watkins Co. offered two sizes, a small and large case. The small case measured 18 inches long, 12 ¾ inches high, and 6 ½ inches wide while dimensions for the large case were 17 ½ inches long, 18 inches high, and 7 inches wide. When filled, the large case weighed 46 pounds and the small case weighed 27 pounds.
Its exterior was covered with a waterproof vulcanized fiber trimmed with brass on each corner while the interior was fitted with black waterproof lining. The cases had a leather covered handle, three clasps to open and close, and a lock.
For extra strength, each case was fitted with a steel rod extending “from top to bottom through the partitions near the handle and the beveled edges of the case where it closes.” The interior of each case included partitions to securely store products of varying sizes, though, as shown below, the right side of the small case did not have partitions.
J. R. Watkins Co. recommended both the large and small cases to their salesmen because one case did not fit everything. The catalog even suggests locations in the wagon to stow these cases. The large case fit in the front of the wagon between the seat and front bins along the door lengthwise while the small case could be placed on the seat next to the driver. This provided ample foot space for the salesman.
Catalogue and Price List of Wagons (circa 1919) by J. R. Watkins Co. and other trade catalogs by J. R. Watkins Medical Co. are located in the Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History Library.