Many miniature, antique or vintage canoe paddles pop up regularly on eBay with sellers often describing them as 'salesman's samples'. True 'salesman's sample' paddles are to be distinguished from other 'souvenir' or miniature paddles. I refer to those attractive little items ranging anywhere from 12" to about 2' in length that generally have some form of decal, logo or advertising on them that relates to an early canoe manufacturing company. The term 'salesman's sample' is really a misnomer, for these were for the most part 'hand-outs' given away at the end of plant tours, or supplied in bulk to retailers by the canoe companies to be used as advertising at trade shows and in their own show rooms when making sales. They kept the kids happy and occupied while dad negotiated purchase of a new watercraft. They were fun to have at the summer cottage. Many got displayed as decorative pieces to compliment the rustic atmosphere of a camp or lodge. Today, they are much sought after collectibles by sporting enthusiasts, advertising aficionados and those who simply love old watercraft and related memorabilia.
What to know about them? While I do not pretend to be an expert, I can offer some thoughts based on 20 years collecting
experience. I have seen these things sell for wildly fluctuating prices, so be
your own judge of what you want to spend and how desperately you wish to own a
particular piece. I have written this guide for the simple purpose of letting novice collectors and others who may become interested know what's out there. It is not meant to be an exhaustive survey; just sharing some information picked up over the years.
In the US, one of the most prolific and best known canoe manufacturers over the
years has been the Old Town Co. of Maine. Old Town began about 1900 and has for
many years produced and distributed a tear-drop shaped miniature paddle around
19" in length by about 2-3/4" wide with a simple Old Town decal,
usually on the upper part of the blade. Since the Old Town decal has
undergone changes over the years, one has to get to know the various iterations in order to ascertain the true vintage of a particular paddle. There were at least three different decals used -see: http://forums.wcha.org/showthread.php?2955-Dating-Old-Town-Paddles&highlight=Town+decals. Some time ago, I acquired a salesman's sample canoe made by Kennebec, of Waterville, Maine; along with it came two small paddles which, I was told, were original to the canoe. This story seems quite plausible, having made a close inspection of the paddles. They measure 24" and 20" in length by 2-1/2" and 2-1/4" in width, respectively. There is no sign of any decal or marking on them, but they are well-fashioned and very correctly made, including oval-shaped shafts. In April 2008, a sample paddle claiming to have been made by the Willits Bros. Canoe Co. of Tacoma, WA, appeared on eBay; more about this a little further down the page.
I haven't yet come across samples by other old-time American canoe manufacturers, though
they may well exist, and I welcome input from others as to their actual or known existence and
description. There are, however, a number of sample paddles to be found by those who specialized in paddle making: Shaw and Tenney; Beaver Brand; Indian Head; etc.
In Canada, the Peterborough Canoe Company is the one whose samples are most often
found. They are fairly numerous, though some sellers like to suggest otherwise. Peterborough Canoe Co. miniatures come in two basic sizes: 12" long
by 2" wide and 18" long by 1-7/8" to 2" wide. (There is,
reputedly, a third variety 25" long by 2-1/2" wide, but I have only
ever seen two, they having come from the home of a retired Peterborough
employee many years ago, according to my source, a reliable local antique
dealer. These latter two have no markings, so a totally positive verification is
problematic. And, I must now add that there is a 4th version, 38" long by 3-3/8" wide. Discovered in June 2009, a pair of these paddles were found with decals which date them to circa 1920's, possibly earlier. Their crackly old varnish and overall patina attest to their age). The smaller Peterborough miniatures were made in a classic 'beaver tail'
style and normally bear a small, red/gold oval-shaped company decal with the
Peterborough name in black type, all surrounded by a belt. Here, again, there were several versions of the Peterborough decal; the script or font used changed over
the years, so, again, you must check the style to determine the actual vintage
of any particular paddle. That task is simplified somewhat in that Peterborough
produced a second decal to be added to its paddles during its 60th and
75th Anniversary years: 1939 and 1954, respectively. Miniatures with
anniversary decals as well as company decals are especially prized by
collectors. Finding an anniversary
paddle will show you the type of font used to spell the 'Peterborough' name
around that time period. Miniatures by Peterborough seem to have been widely
distributed over the years, from the early 1900's until the early 1960's.
Many are found with additional advertising decals put on by local marinas or
other sales outlets. Very popular collectibles everywhere!!
The Chestnut Canoe Company of Fredericton, New Brunswick, an early rival of Old
Town, traces its trade mark back to 1905, and that date appears on all Chestnut
decals. This does NOT mean that the canoe or paddle on which such a decal is found was made
in 1905, only that the company traces its roots at least back that far. (Historical records suggest the company actually began in 1897.) Paddles
could have been made anywhere up until the 1960's. Early on, miniature paddles
made by Chestnut were not turned out according to a standard pattern at the
factory but, rather, hand-carved by individual retired Chestnut employees as a
sort of cottage industry or retirement program from which they earned extra
pocket money. As a result, these early Chestnut miniatures may appear more
primitive and exhibit some individualism of overall shape and style. Shafts are
usually straight with no, or only a very slight, hand grip; paddle blades are
'beaver tail' shape, but rather small in relation to paddle length, which
generally runs 11" by 1-3/8" wide. In the years after 1930, when Chestnut
became amalgamated with Peterborough and the Canadian Canoe Co., their
miniature paddles took on a size and shape nearly identical to the Peterborough
miniatures. The hand grip of the Chestnut is slightly more flared.
So, there is
an easy distinction to be made between early and later Chestnut miniatures. As
well, you might want to note that the center portion of the earlier Chestnut
decal is of an orange-brown color, whereas the later decals had a more grayish-brown
tint. Compared to Peterborough miniatures, those by Chestnut are VERY scarce
indeed. Only six or seven have turned up on eBay in 15 years; one
sold for close to $400, and was a rare early example.
Peterboroughs, on the other hand, have sold from $30 to $150 or so for an
especially nice 18" example, and closer to $200 for a very good
anniversary item. But, there again, how much you spend is your business,
particularly if you're dead set on winning an auction.
Canadian Canoe Company miniatures are also very similar to the Peterborough
samples, both in the 12" and 18" sizes. Any differences in overall
shape require an experienced eye and are so slight as to be unseen by most
folks. Canadian Canoe Co. paddles have a shield-like paper label in green, red and yellow
(or gold). There is also a later version which simply has a decal with the word
"Canadian" written in an upwardly-sloping green or black script across the
blade, and with the words "outboard boats & canoes" in smaller
yellow block print below, and "Peterborough, Ontario" in still tinier
green/black print below that yet. These Canadian Canoe Co. miniatures seem to fall
somewhere between the Peterboroughs and the Chestnuts in numbers that turn up.
And, now, for the very rarest of the rare, at least as far as I know the scene.
The Walter Dean Canoe Company of Toronto flourished in the early 1900's and
made superb canoes and boats in and around the teens. They had an excellent
reputation for producing speedy watercraft and winning many races. Over the
years, I have managed to find two Dean miniatures, each 25" in length by
2-3/4" wide, and of a rather 'square-ended' beaver tail shape with a red,
green and gold maple leaf decal and the words "Walter Dean Canoes &
Boats" in black type across its face. Until recently, they were the only such examples I
knew of, and I've been told that family descendants have searched for years to
find others. Two or three others have since been found. I know of a museum or two that would be happy to locate one.
You'll be extremely fortunate to come across an example; however, it does
establish that the Dean Co. did make such items.
I have similarly come across two examples made by the Rice Lake Canoe Co.,
during the years when it was located at Cobourg, Ontario. Rice Lake was a successor
to the Herald Canoe Co. first founded by Daniel Herald in 1862, one of the
earliest North American manufacturers of wooden plank canoes, along with John
Stephenson, William English and Thomas Gordon. Herald Canoe later became Herald Brothers when
old Daniel's sons took over, then was re-named Rice Lake Canoe Co. when the
brothers sold. The company moved from Gore’s Landing, on Rice Lake, to Cobourg,
on Lake Ontario, in 1920, but went bankrupt in 1926. As these paddles
have decals stating "Cobourg" on them, they can reliably be dated to
the later time period. The decals are the well-known Herald decal with an
outline of a trumpeter (herald) poised to sound a call. These paddles
are 22" and 24" in length, respectively, and each is 2-1/2" wide
in an otter-tail style - i.e., tapering to a narrower width as you look down
the blade of the paddle. Again, I know of no others; however, the existence of
these two establishes that this company did make such pieces.
As mentioned earlier, a rare 'Willits Bros.' ** sample paddle showed up recently on eBay; it was the first I had ever seen, though that is not to say there are not others out there. This beautiful specimen was 28" in length by 3-1/2" wide in the blade. It was rather outstandingly unique in that, where other samples may have a decal on the paddle blade or shaft, this one had a shield-like metal plate about an inch or so high and wide imbedded or recessed into the paddle blade about 1/4 the length of the blade up from the bottom. It seems that others also thought it was desirable, as the bidding reached almost $600. Congratulations to the lucky winning bidder! (** It should be noted that there was some controversy over the actual origin and/or authenticity of this particular sample paddle; perhaps not surprising, given that it is the only one of its kind so far known to exist. Those interested in reading the contrasting opinions should refer to the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association forum pages, which is an info sharing and discussion site: http://forums.wcha.org/showthread.php?3187-Willits-Salesman-Sample-Paddle&highlight=Willits+Bros+paddle.
There are many other paddle makers out there who made and distributed small
examples of their wares as advertising pieces. These things are fun to collect,
and I have by no means covered the field. I have mentioned only a few of the
early, primarily old-time canoe makers and simply attempted to whet your collecting appetites
by sharing a little of my knowledge and experience in the hopes that you will
join me in this fascinating hobby. I have intentionally excluded mention of
generic 'Indian head' miniature souvenir paddles which are found with many different colorful decals of Chiefs and Braves and usually place names (towns, summer resorts, etc.) on them, sold
at souvenir shops, won at carnivals, etc. They are not truly 'salesman's samples'
or manufacturers' advertising pieces, but are nonetheless highly collectable
and much sought after. I do note, though, that there is a fairly well-known American firm which sells under a registered trade name of "Indian Head Brand", uses an Indian head decal outline in flowing headdress, and thus certainly qualifies as a 'salesman's sample' in respect of its smaller advertising pieces. There is also another manufacturer which sells under the 'Navajo' brand trade name and uses a Native American as a logo; its smaller paddles could likewise qualify as 'salesman's samples'.
Good luck in your searching and acquiring. Do try to be careful to avoid the
fakes and the false claims. Remember, too, that decals can be reproduced, and
unscrupulous people can create an older looking paddle by simply sticking a
reproduction decal on it. That hasn't happened a lot that I am aware of, but
the potential is always there for the would-be crook.
This guide contains information which has never previously been published (at least as far as I am aware). If you find it to be helpful and interesting, please signify by voting "Yes" below so that others may also become informed. If it has not been useful, please let me know and I will try to offer improvements. Thanks.