Though he invariably has his way with the small-town girls in a thousand indestructible smutty stories, the actual life the traveling salesman led was not nearly so gleeful. Commercial travelers—there were almost a hundred thousand of them by the turn of the century—rode day coaches from tank town to tank town, lived in railroad hotels, and ate bad food. But perhaps the drummer has gained so ubiquitous a role in jokes because he told so many of them. He had to. A line of the latest scorchers from Chicago or New York City was as important as any sample or catalogue in coaxing orders from the locals. This compulsive joke-telling could be an annoying habit, but it was rarely a lethal one. The painter Archibald M. Willard, however, was witness to an appalling exception. According to a contemporary account, he heard a drummer tell “a particularly good story to a very appreciative man coming up the Lake Shore road. His laughter, very hearty at first, became hysterical and could not be stopped; he struggled, strangled and died in the car.… The drummer has not dared tell that story since.”
When the artist came to paint the scene, he evidently decided to have the salesman done in by his own joke; the hearty man on the aisle could be no one else, and his two companions are clearly not in danger of dying from merriment.
Willard’s canvas dates from 1885; a decade earlier he had become famous for that better-known—but no more acutely American—vision, The Spirit of ’76 .