Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Rural America Shops by Mail

April 8, 2019 Innovation Impact
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With mail order catalogs, rural Americans could choose from among a much wider variety of goods than at their local general store. THF119939 and THF115221

Today, shopping opportunities are everywhere—as a way to purchase things we need, as well as leisure time entertainment. We cruise the mall, trod the aisles of big-box stores, browse the shelves of trendy boutiques, roll our carts down the grocery store aisle, stop off at the convenience store, flip through store catalogs delivered to our door, and shop online. We can even shop from the convenience of our smartphone or tablet. Shopping is now a 24-7 opportunity filled with endless choices of goods made all over the world.

During the late 19th century, things were quite different. Most Americans lived on farms or in small villages--shopping choices were limited. Yet, the advent of mail order shopping was opening up a world of new possibilities.

Shopping Locally
Where did most rural people shop during the late 19th century? Usually the small stores located at a nearby village or town or perhaps a general store located at a country crossroads.  These stores provided a narrow selection of items that served the needs of the locals, yet offered shoppers the tactile experience of handling the goods before deciding to purchase. Factories were turning out consumer goods of all kinds, advertising trumpeted the merits of the products to potential customers, and railroads made it easier to get those goods to rural stores as well urban ones—so rural shoppers in America’s hinterland could obtain some of the same or similar items found in the city. 

Still—small town shopkeepers couldn’t afford to stock an endless variety of merchandise to broaden their customers’ choices. So, instead of selecting from dozens of shoe styles or tableware patterns, or printed fabric designs, rural customers often made their choices from whatever goods were at hand in the local merchant’s store.

Mail Order Shopping Debuts
During the final decades of the 19th century, America’s farmers developed a growing discontent towards institutions they felt were stealing too large a share of their hard-earned profits: “middlemen” like the grain elevator operators who they felt were paying too low a price for their crops and the storekeepers who they felt charged them too high a price for the goods they bought at retail. Farmers organized themselves into “the Patrons of Husbandry,” also known as the Grange, to protest these inequities as well as seek opportunities to form cooperatives through which they could purchase goods at wholesale prices.

Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago recognized that his innovative idea for direct-mail marketing meshed well with this growing discontent on the part of farmers. In 1872, Montgomery Ward & Company launched what would become the first general mail order company in American history.  Advertising his company as “The Original Wholesale Grange Supply House,” Ward stated that the firm sold its goods to “Patrons of Husbandry, Farmers and Mechanics at Wholesale Prices.” His recipe for success—high volume, a wide selection of goods, ease of handling, and low prices—enabled Ward to extend the advantages found in urban marketplace directly to rural customers.

As Montgomery Ward & Company’s mail order business quickly grew, other companies joined in. The other mail order giant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, also located in Chicago, began offering mail order in 1888.  By 1900, these two mail order houses were the two greatest merchandisers in the world. Countless other firms offered a variety of goods from ready-made clothing to hardware and farm equipment, using the direct-marketing of mail order to extend their reach to customers all over the nation.

Mail order catalogs brought city and country together. The enticing products shown on their pages represented the new and modern to their rural readers, promising higher standards of living and material progress through the attractive goods and labor-saving devices displayed there. Mail order catalogs offered rural residents a “taste” of the urban experience, offering goods found in the shops and department stores that blossomed in the commercial districts of America’s burgeoning cities. Catalogs, of course, broadened the merchandise selection for some city people as well.

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Montgomery Ward & Company launched America’s first general mail order company.  Over 22 years later, their 1894-1895 catalog still proudly trumpeted this fact:  “Originators of the Mail Order Business.”
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A Cornucopia of Material Delights
Flipping through these mail order catalogs brought a visual feast of tens of thousands of products—some satisfying needs and some gratifying wants.  For a farm family whose lives and daily activities brought little variety, these catalogs opened a world of new material possibilities:  fashionable ready-made clothing, hats and hat trimmings, jewelry of all kinds, sewing machines, cook stoves, and hardware for use on the farm or stylish hinges to update farmhouse doors. Even carriages and automobiles could be shopped for by mail.  

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The northern Indiana family shown in this circa 1900 parlor photograph could have obtained many of the goods by mail order—even the piano. 
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The photograph above depicts a middle-class family from a farm or small town surrounded by the mass-produced goods that provided an attractive, comfortable lifestyle.  Many of the items could have been purchased from a mail order catalog. (Keep in mind that, while rural residents might have access to many of the same goods, they often had far less spending power than urban America.)

Delivering the Catalogs—and the Goods

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From placing the order to delivery of the goods, the image on the cover of this 1880s Jordan Marsh catalog suggests the ease of “successful” shopping by mail—allaying any concerns for those new to the process.  THF119786

Mail order catalogs came to farmers—not surprisingly--through the mail. Yet, for many years, that did not mean convenient delivery to their doorstep. Though city dwellers had enjoyed free home delivery of mail since 1863, rural residents still had to pick up their own mail at the nearest post office—even though they paid the same postage as the rest of the nation. Bad roads and distance often meant that farmers rarely picked up their mail more than once a week. So placing a catalog order could take longer for farm folk than city dwellers.  A farm family might pick up a catalog on a trip to town one week, then place the order the next time someone went to town. Payment for mail orders was made by money order, purchased through the post office.
In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added. In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

How did merchandise ordered get to the person who ordered it? Before the advent of rural free delivery, people could pick up small packages at the post office. Private express companies delivered larger packages shipped to the nearest railroad station, transporting them to the customer’s home. Farmers might use their own wagons to transport goods shipped by rail to them. 

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Heavy or large packages sent by mail were shipped to the local railroad station.  An express company would then deliver them to the customer.  If the customer owned a horse-drawn wagon, they might pick up the package at the railroad station themselves.
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After the beginning of rural free delivery, mail carriers delivered packages weighing up to four pounds to their customers’ mailboxes. By law, heavier packages had to be delivered by private express companies.  

In January 1913, the U.S. Postal Service established parcel post—now goods could be delivered directly to homes. It was an instant success, boosting mail-order businesses enormously. During the first five days of parcel post service nearly 1,600 post offices handled over 4 million parcel post packages. Within the first six months, 300 million parcels had been delivered. Weight and size limits were gradually expanded. By 1931, parcel post deliveries included packages weighing up to 70 pounds and measuring up to 100 inches.

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In the early years of rural mail delivery, farmers could use whatever was at hand as a mailbox—pails, cans or wooden crates. When rural free delivery became permanent and universal in 1902, the United States Post Office required rural customers to have regulation mailboxes in order to receive their mail.
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Something Gained, Something Lost
While catalog shopping brought variety and convenience to rural Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century, there was an important trade-off. The face-to-face communication and personal relationship that had existed between a local storekeeper and his customers was eroding, helped along by national advertising which told potential customers what to buy—rather than customers seeking the advice of the storekeeper. Too, stores became increasingly self-serve. This trend toward less personal, “non-local” shopping continued to grow throughout the 20th century for rural and urban people alike, involving not only orders by mail, but by phone and, eventually, the internet.  In the 21st century, sales of consumer goods increasingly take place online. 

Yet, more recently, people have come to value the attentive personal service offered and unique goods stocked by many local retailers. Many shoppers combine the advantages of shopping online for the wide variety goods available there, with the personal touch and service-oriented experience of shopping locally. Encouraging this shop-local trend are national campaigns like Small Business Saturday, which takes place Thanksgiving weekend, encouraging shoppers to patronize small retailers.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

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