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 9 Vintage Sample Cases from the Days of Traveling Salesmen

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Say it’s the early 1900s, and you manufacture a good quality toilet. You want everyone to know about your toilet, to see how truly superior it is. But how? Catalogs and ads are OK, but they really don’t do the product justice. You’re happy to employ salesmen to go door to door, or shop-front to shop-front, but it’s not like they can lug your magnificent toilet along with them. What to do?

Salesman Samples. Small versions, crafted in exacting detail, of your product. They could be displayed in stores all over the country, or even taken directly to the consumer in specially crafted cases.

Today, salesman samples are hot collectibles, partially because of how rare genuine surviving examples are. Most of the objects being sold on Ebay as salesman samples are actually toys. Even the most experienced antique collector can have a hard time telling the difference between a masterfully crafted turn-of-the-century salesman sample stove and a masterfully crafted turn-of-the-century toy stove. We’ve done our best to distinguish true salesman samples below. Sometimes only the most basic information accompanies these old samples, so we encourage any readers who might know about these products to add to our collective intelligence in the comments section.

1. Swimming Pool


These models of above-ground, less expensive swimming pools were made by Sears in the 1960s; marketing what was once a luxury for the wealthy to the thriving middle class. This sample is an example of a case that likely didn’t go door to door, but sat on display in the store.

2. Neon Assortment

Marna Anderson

In 1935, you really had to peddle your neon. The competition was fierce. By 1940, there were over 2000 small shops in America producing neon light. A case like this would be far more impressive than any catalog, and would help “Dorwart Signs of Lancaster PA” outshine the competition.

3. Individual Mausoleum 


I dearly hope this wasn’t a door to door salesman’s case. Offering me a coupon for a free carpet cleaning is annoying enough; having someone at my door peddling eternal rest would be very unsettling. This was listed as a 1940s-50s salesman sample miniature, "Wilbert Individual Mausoleum with Southern Gray Blue Granite Cover and Headstone."

4. Billiard Table


This billiard table sample, dating from the early 1900s, would likely have been shopped around to gentlemen’s clubs of both fine and ill repute. A “poolroom” used to be the place you went to place bets (pool your money) on horses. The billiards table was an afterthought, to help patrons pass the time between races.

5. Bristol-Myers Products


This collection of Bristol-Myers products, dated from about 1970, offers just about everything a modern woman needed to be happy, from dust spray to Bufferin.

6. Persian Rug Assortment


Teeny little rugs!

7. Avon Sample Case


This Avon case, listed on Ebay as “from the 70s,” offers a fragrance for every mood. Do you wish to emit an entrancing musk today? Because there are options for both rugged-yet-sensitive men and elegant women who apply their blush with a slashing motion. Or perhaps you’re feeling rather “Cordovan” (a color… and possibly also a shoe). With this Avon scent sampler, the possibilities are endless.

8. Safety Grating


This object seemed to serve the double purposes of being both a salesman sample and a patent model. Miniature versions of a new (or improved) invention could also be shown to potential investors. This clever little protection box was designed in 1904 to incorporate the fledgling science of electricity. Exactly how it worked is beyond my engineering comprehension (as is, in fairness, the latch on my dog’s kennel), but the gist was, if you try to cut the bars, electricity causes the alarm to go off. A pretty great advancement in security for 1904.

9. Porcelain toilet

Live Auctioneers

I could find, sadly, almost no information about this Ariston Ceramics toilet. But it was too beautiful, with its natural wood and remarkably swanlike curvature, to leave out.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]