Early North American canoe factory 'display samples', as seen below, are often referred to as 'salesman's samples'. That term is somewhat incorrect, in that these 'samples' were never routinely handed out to sales personnel, nor used as everyday selling aides. In fact, very few were ever made. For the most part, they were selectively given only to the larger retail establishments as a 'premium' for ordering a large number of full-size canoes, or as some other form of special recognition. They primarily were meant to be hung up as 'eye candy' of the day, or used in window displays - i.e., attractive ornaments to capture a prospective buyer's attention. In Canada, only a handful of 'samples' appear to have been produced at any of the leading builders of the time - Ontario Canoe Co., Chestnut, Rice Lake, Peterborough. In the United States, perhaps a hundred or so were handed out over the course of 80+ years by Old Town Canoe Co.; build records for Kennebec Canoe Co. show only 60 were ever made during their 30+ years of existence. Carleton Canoe Co. may have made 20 or so, but E M White likely made less, and examples by other major shops, such as Gerrish and Morris, are entirely unknown. Only one model of a J H Rushton skiff is known and, so far, just one identified sample canoe by J R Robertson. So.... numerous they are NOT, and everyday selling tools they NEVER WERE. 'Sample' paddles, on the other hand, were often made in great numbers, and used as 'hand-outs' at factory tours and trade shows. Many were supplied to marine dealers, and can be found with their seller's logo as well as a maker's decal.
***BUYER BEWARE*** Sellers may try to impress you with claims that they have a genuine "salesman's sample"; to some, it seems anything small must be an old factory sample. Fakes and impostors abound; many items seen today are reproductions, recently made miniatures or, in far too many instances, merely imported decorative items from off-shore, some of which then have been 'antiqued' and 'distressed' so as to deceive, given false trade name identification, and passed off as a genuine antique factory model. Be careful; if in doubt, ask me or another member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association; we'll be happy to assist. Please see detailed advice on fakes (including photos) on my 'Canoe History' page.
Over the past 20 years, my collecting efforts have become focused on finding the best possible examples of these very scarce, early, canoe manufacturer factory display pieces. Given the relatively small numbers available, it has not been an easy task, nor one of insignificant cost. The following photos illustrate the results, to date, of my quest:
Above, the only known 50" factory display sample of a 'vertical rib' all-wood canoe by the Ontario Canoe Co., Peterborough, ON, 1883-1892. aka the 'Patent Rib', this design was an innovation of John S Stephenson in the 1870's, along with an experimental canvas covering, intended as an improvement in water tightness over traditional wide-board, planked canoes. OCC was founded by Col. J Z Rogers, following his purchase in 1879 of Stephenson's patents and canoe-building operations. Subsequently destroyed by fire, it re-commenced under the name Peterborough Canoe Co. in 1892. This unique model is likely one of the earliest, most significant commercial samples in existence with respect to North American canoe-making activity. Production of full-size 'Patent Rib' canoes was not extensive, given the great complexity of the manufacturing process and excessive cost; however, it did persist at Peterborough well into the 20th C., although available examples are scare. The vertical ribs are one layer, cross-ways from gunwale to gunwale, fitted tightly together by tongue-and-groove joinery; no longitudinal planking or support, other than the keel, keelson, outer rails and thin strips at the bilges. Removable floor boards were added after.
Above: John Stephenson 19th C. display sample - a 30" wide-board model, 3 planks per side with large, flat ribs. It is uncertain exactly when it was built (1865-92). Stephenson was a pioneer builder of 'planked' canoes; along with Thomas Gordon, William English and Daniel Herald, he helped originate the making of board canoes in the Peterborough-Lakefield-Rice Lake area of Ontario in the 1850's. Three such models are known: one still with family, one at Canadian Canoe Museum, and this. It has characteristics which suggest an early date, but recently discovered family correspondence may place all of them in the early 1890's. Legend has it that old John made three, to give to family. It seems likely this piece went to his sister, Hannah, who married his business partner, John Craigie; thence to her daughter, and by descent through the family until it came into my hands. Stephenson is often called 'the grandfather of the Peterborough Canoe', because his influence can be traced to that later company through sale of his designs to Ontario Canoe Co.
Above, one of 2 known 36" 'wide-board and batten' display samples by the Peterborough Canoe Co., c. 1900; a third sample of similar length, but built of longitudinal cedar strip construction with narrow, half-round ribs can be found at the Peterborough Centennial Museum. This model was discovered in Winnipeg, MB, where it may have been displayed at a large outfitter store, such as HBC. All original, with very early decals on its decks.
Above, a 72" 'wide-board and batten' factory display sample by the Rice Lake Canoe Co. (poss. Herald Bros.), of Gore's Landing, ON, c. 1900. One of two such samples known, it is in 'near mint' condition and original paint. This piece hung in a sporting goods store in Pembroke, ON, where it was on view for nearly 75 years. Daniel Herald, one of Canada's earliest canoe builders, opened his shop in 1861. He went on to patent a number of innovative techniques in the making of fine watercraft, and was succeeded by his sons. The company later changed hands, then disappeared in 1926. This model, with its exquisitely laminated decks and finest woodwork, is held together by several thousand tiny copper tacks.
Above, a 32" cedar=canvas model with a 'Wm. English-like' appearance; it bears the name "H. Bussey" inscribed on a thwart, along with the date "1946". Full-size canoes such as this were popular in the Peterborough-Lakefield area from the 1880's - 1920's, the hey-day of recreational canoeing. The model is meticulously made using different species of wood and is fastened with the tiniest of copper tacks and brass watch-maker's screws. Whether or not it is actually a factory sample may be debatable, but it is certainly a fine work of art.
Above, a 32" sample sailing canoe of early vintage in a ribbed, wide-board form, found along the south shore of Lake Simcoe, near Barrie, ON, and used as a toy during the 1920's. Possibly made by one of the early boat-building shops in the Oriilia-Penetanguishene-Barrie-Beaverton area; some think it has influences of Gidley/Grew heritage. A bit primitive or amateurish in some respects, it also suggests a factory influence.
Above, an exceedingly rare 85" cedar-canvas sample by the Chestnut Canoe Co., Fredericton, NB, c. 1910. One of only five currently known to exist. For many years, it was a fixture in a fishing tackle and bait shop in Bala, ON. It bears decals on both decks known to have been used prior to the 1920 fire which destroyed the factory. Still in all its original glory.
Above, a 42" cedar-canvas model made by Alfred Wickett, who began building canoes as a teenager at E M White, then became first manager at Old Town Canoe Co., and later founded two firms of his own: Penobscot Canoe Co. and St. Louis Meramec Boat & Canoe Co. Family lore holds that Wickett made this model for the World's Columbian Exhibition (World's Fair), Chicago, 1893, although it is arguable that it may have been the St. Louis World's Fair, in 1903 (based on his age and its characteristics). Alfred Wickett was a man of great talent, even at a young age, and this model's provenance would make it one of the earliest and most significant American display samples currently known.
Above, 52" cedar-canvas factory sample by the E M White Canoe Co., c. 1920. Three similar models have recently come to light, one of them on 'Antiques Roadshow'. The paddles were found separate from the canoe. White was another of the leading, early manufacturers, eventually taken over by Old Town Canoe, as was Carleton Canoe, before it.
Above, a 69" factory display sample from the Kennebec Canoe Co., c. 1924 (restored paint, original interior). 50 such models were made between 1922 and 1926, with another ten having been made earlier, in 1916. This piece hung in a ship's chandlery in Charleston, SC, for many years. Issues and questions sometimes arise over whether or not to restore an antique item. In this case, the outer surface had already been altered and had a disturbing appearance; thus its paint was restored, based on a 1924 catalog photograph.
Above, a 42" Carleton Canoe Co. model, c. 1910, one of about eight known, though a couple dozen are believed to have been made. Carleton was taken over in 1910 by Old Town Canoe, which carried on both lines until the 1940's. Found behind a false wall in an office building on Statten Island, NY, many years ago, it was obtained by me just weeks prior to potential loss in Hurricane Sandy. Both seats and one thwart (plus carry-thwart) have been replaced; otherwise original, inside and out, and retains its old brand name lettering.
Above, a 48" display sample by the Old Town Canoe Co., in extremely pretty original red paint with drop shadow lettering and gold stripe with Greek ends. This is one of very few models whose description corresponds with an actual build record; in this case # 82304, shipped to G Fox department store, Hartford, CT, in April 1924. Company correspondence suggests that likely fewer than 100 display samples were ever made. Old Town also made them in an 8' length and, very early on, even larger 10', 11', 12' and 14' pieces, called 'sign canoes', were distributed.
Above, some photos of a c. 1910 J R Robertson 'display sample' canoe, 76" in length, the only one currently known to exist, along with 4 early sample paddles. Robertson was a well-admired early maker of canoes, originally in upper New York state, then along the Charles River, just outside of Boston. He had brief business associations with both J H Rushton and Old Town Canoe Co., as well as operating his own business at Auburndale, MA, where he perhaps became best known for crafting lovely, long-decked 'courting' canoes. Recreational canoeing was very popular in the latter 1800's, and into the first three decades of the 1900's. At places such as the Charles River and Belle Isle, near Detroit, the waters would be so packed with young couples out for a week-end of paddling and romance, that it is said one could nearly walk from shore to shore simply by stepping from canoe to canoe. Those were the 'hey-days' for canoeing, and this model was meant to be hung up and displayed as an example of Robertson's skill and craftsmanship. It resided for many years on Cape Cod.
Above, photos of a recently-acquired 48" wide-board sample of undetermined origin, c. 1885. An extremely interesting and likely unique piece, it exhibits stylistic traits suggesting a Canadian influence in the manner of very early Peterborough-Lakefield builders with its 3 boards per side laid on narrow flat ribs, its one-piece decks and thwart construction; yet its planks with 'feathered' edges and overlapped joinery fastened together with screws rather than tacks, and lack of battens, equally suggest a maker more familiar with guide boat type construction from the northern NY state/New England area. In this respect, it exemplifies known historic 'migration' of innovative canoe-building technology from Ontario makers such as Stephenson, Gordon, English, Strickland to shops in the northern US states begun by Robertson, Rushton, Carleton, Gerrish, White and others in the 1880's. Just who built this one may never be completely clear; however, it displays attributes like products turned out by H V Partelow, the earliest of the Charles River builders at Auburndale, outside of Boston. The interesting combination of styles/techniques makes for a wonderful and historically significant item. It has now joined others on public display at the Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, ON.
Above, occasionally an older kayak model shows up. This one is 41" long, and likely dates to the first quarter of the 20th C., perhaps earlier. It requires further research.
Above, a 16" 'builder's model', used to test design concepts prior to actual building. Not a 'display sample' per se, but certainly a useful artifact from the construction office.
Sample paddles were made in very large numbers by several factories (e.g., Peterborough, Old Town), while very few were made by others (Walter Dean, Rice Lake, Kennebec).
Some, like the Lakefield example seen here, are virtually unknown, while those by other makers fall somewhere in between. Value, as in most cases, depends upon supply and demand. Unlike sample canoes, however, prices are not nearly as astronomical. Be aware that decals can be reproduced; thus fakes and/or reproductions can and do exist.
Canoe cups (left) are another interesting area of canoe collectibles. Highly decorative in many instances, they began as utilitarian pieces which the early voyageur fur traders hung from their belts and used to scoop a drink of water as they paddled across the lakes and rivers of North America centuries ago. In the middle and on right are early American Canoe Association championship medals won by the great Leo Friede, World Champion Canoe Sailor. These have been donated to the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum, in Spooner, WI.
Got something you might like to sell? I am always looking to add to my collection, especially if it's a piece I don't already have.
Alternatively, perhaps I can help you find a buyer. I also do professional appraisals for insurance/charitable donation/tax certificate purposes should you wish to guard against loss or possibly donate your item to a museum, etc. A very modest fee is requested.
- true sample canoes
PLEASE NOTE: Most of the models appearing below are currently on long-term loan to the Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, Ontario, where they can be seen as part of the 'Artisan and Industry' exhibit. Please feel welcome to visit and support this wonderful cultural institution, housing the World's largest and finest collection of paddled watercraft.