This weekend, I was in a small town called Dewey, in Oklahoma, for a car show. The show, if you’re interested, was called the Stray Kat 500 (it was put on by a club called the Stray Kats and was limited to 500 cars), but that’s not the topic of this article.
One of the central historical features of the town is the Dewey Hotel Museum. The hotel was built in 1899, and has been restored to its former glory. It’s a neat little museum and a glimpse of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the most interesting features, to this lifelong salesman, was a structure at the rear called the “Drum Shed.” The drum shed was simply that – a shed that was one open space. Its purpose, the tour guide told us, was for traveling salespeople.
Traveling salespeople who stayed at the hotel could, at no extra charge, set up their wares in the Drum Shed for the townspeople to peruse and purchase. Hence, they were “drumming up business,” hence the name “Drum Shed.”
Being intellectually curious, that led me to wonder where the phrase originated. We’ve all used it, so where did it come from? IDEX online (the site of the International Diamond EXchange), offers this explanation:
The phrase “drumming up business” originated in the U.S. during the 1800s, and was especially prevalent during the Civil War of 1861-1865.
Traveling salesmen kept their wares in a leather-clad box that was essentially a wooden frame with leather stretched over it.
In an effort to let the owner of a home – usually a plantation in the South – know that they were coming up the lane, they would take out a set of drum stocks and begin drumming on their leather box. It had the sound of a muted snare drum.
In the Civil War, it was especially important for those traveling sales people to announce their presence well before ringing the doorbell: in the South, they might be shot at, especially if the landowner thought they were a Yankee spy.
That makes sense, and it dovetails with other explanations I’ve found. What’s the point of this for salespeople in 2017? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Consider this a fun sales fact of the day.