How successful were traveling salesmen in the Old West?

Jack A. Graves

Turlock, California

Traveling drummers, salesmen or peddlers provided goods and services for folks living on farms in rural or frontier areas that didn’t have easy access to town. Salesmen packed their wagons with  everything ranging from scissors, pots and pans to medicine, books and clothing. A good one cultivated customers by passing through the area on a regular basis.

The markup on these goods could be substantial. Some of these guys—such as Levi Strauss—went from peddler to millionaire. I’d say the most successful drummers in the Far West were those who hauled goods into mining camps such as Virginia City, Nevada, Tombstone, Arizona, and Deadwood, South Dakota. They provided hard-to-get items like durable clothes, gold pans, picks and shovels. Several got in on the ground floor and eventually becoming wealthy merchants.

Also, let’s not forget the whiskey and liquor peddlers. Working above or outside the law, they tended to make a killing among the thirsty pioneers.

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