Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged shopping

Green card with text and image of woman in wispy dress with wings
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516

As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."

While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!

Cat and ducks around feed dish, also contains text
Trade Card for “Boraxine” Soap, J.D. Larkin & Co., 1882 / THF296340

In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.

Blue, orange and white box with text
Boraxine Soap Powder, 1925-1940 / THF155045

The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.

Card with text
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327

After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.

Two-page spread with images of rugs and text
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153

“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”

Man standing with hands on hips on porch or gazebo with woman and two children on swing nearby; also contains text
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907

The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year! 

Images of a number of household items and text
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080

By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.

Did You Know?
After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.


With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.

Images of women and text
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079

Beige fabric forming a type of hammock, suspended from rectangular frame and four ropes
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549

Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.

Images of products and text
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831

Text and images of household items and furnishings
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076

Text and images of birds and birdcages
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Click here to view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067

As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.

Multicolored pottery candlestick with botanical and other designs
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916

Images of office workers and building, along with text
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783

Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.

Images of buildings with text
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811

“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.

Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.

Man, woman, and little girl with table and lamp; also contains text
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101

In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.

What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America. 


Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.

mail order, shopping, home life, furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson

The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building from Detroit's Central Farmers Market in 2003, saving it from demolition. Like the farmers markets of today, the Detroit Central Farmers Market was a gathering place – a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community space where family, friends, and neighbors congregated and socialized. 

This farmers market can become a destination again, a resource for exploring America's agricultural past, present, and future. We need your help to make this happen. #PledgeYourPassion by making a gift this Giving Tuesday

Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888.
Vegetable Building at Detroit Central Farmers Market, circa 1888. THF200604 

Learn more about the remarkable history of this important structure.  

The City of Detroit invested in a new permanent market building - this expansive vegetable hall - in 1860. Located at the east end of Michigan Avenue, just east of Woodward at Campus Martius, it was roughly four blocks square, extending from Woodward to Randolph. The major building in the market was the expansive vegetable building. Market gardeners, florists, orchardists, and nurserymen sold their produce from rented stalls between 1861 and 1893.  

The growth of Central Market reflects Detroit’s growth as a city. Much of Detroit’s early history revolved around its importance as a port and strategic location in the Great Lakes. During the 19th century, Detroit’s manufacturing base and its population grew rapidly, more than doubling every 10 years from just 2,222 people in 1830 to 45,619 in 1860. The Central Market was the first Detroit market not located by the docks, reflecting the city’s transition from a port town to a city. Farmers were now coming to Detroit to sell to city residents, rather than to ship produce to eastern cities.

1884 Sanborn insurance map of Central Market
This certified 1884 Sanborn insurance map shows the Central Market area, including the Vegetable Building and other shops. 

The Central Farmers Market began in 1843 as a simple shed built off the rear of the old City Hall building. Problems with traffic congestion caused by the market, along with the desire to make the prominent square more presentable, led newly elected Mayor Christian H. Buhl to pledge to build a new covered market building. The city hired local architect John Schaffer to develop plans. Schaffer’s design called for a “structure to be comprised of forty-eight iron columns supporting a wooden roof, [measuring] 70 by 242 feet from outside to outside.” The construction contract was awarded in June to Joel Gray at a cost of $5,312. In late September of 1860, the Detroit Free Press wrote: 

“The new market building in the rear of the City Hall is nearly competed and promises to be a fine structure. It covers the whole of the space occupied as a vegetable market, and consists of an open shed, the roof of which is supported on iron columns and a well-finished framework. The roof is of slate and cost about $1,500. It is designed in time to make a tile floor and erect fountains. The building will accommodate all the business of the market and will constitute an ornament as well as a great convenience to that important branch of city commerce.”

Carved wooden ornamentation on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building
Carved wooden ornamentation enhanced the appearance of the market building. THF113542 

In its first year, the market earned the city $1,127 in rent, covering 20% of the construction costs in one year. The building thrived as the vegetable market through the 1880s. The emergence of the Eastern Market, and the continuing desire to open the street to traffic, led the Common Council to decide to close the Central Market in 1892. In 1893 the Parks and Boulevards Commission, which operated Belle Isle, received approval to move the building to Belle Isle for use as a horse and vehicle shelter. The building was re-erected on Belle Isle in 1894. 

In later years it was converted to a riding stable – the sides were bricked in, the roof was altered to add clerestory windows to let in light, and an office and wash area was constructed in the south end. After the riding stable closed in 1963, the building was used to keep the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police, and then later used for storage. It was considered for demolition since the early 1970s. Over the summer of 2003, the building was dismantled and the parts from the original market building were preserved for re-erection in Greenfield Village.

Detroit Central Market building converted to a riding stable and moved to Belle Isle
After the market building was moved to Belle Isle, it was converted to a riding stable. It had been vacant for more than 20 years at the time of this photo. THF113549 

The Detroit Central Farmers Market vegetable building is a rare and important building. Because of fires and development pressures, wooden commercial buildings, particularly timber-framed buildings, rarely survive to the present in urban settings. This may be the only 19th century timber-frame market building surviving in the United States. Its move to Belle Isle saved it from demolition.

Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s.
Historic view of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, taken in the late 1880s. THF96803 

The building is architecturally significant. It is an excellent expression of prevailing architectural tastes, as demonstrated by the Free Press review. It captures the rapidly changing world of building construction of the mid-19th century. The building represents the pinnacle of the timber framer’s craft; it is elegantly shaped and ornamented in a way that makes the frame itself the visual keystone of the design. It was built shortly before timber frame construction was eclipsed by the new balloon frame construction, which used dimensional lumber and nailed joints. The cast iron columns that support the timber-framed roof represent the newest in manufactured construction materials. Cast iron was the favorite material of the modern builder in the mid-19th century. It was easy to form into a variety of shapes, and ideal for adding ornamentation to buildings at a moderate cost. The columns in the market building have been formed to represent two different materials – the lower section resembles an elaborately carved stone column, while the upper section looks like the timber frame structure that it supports.

thf113530
Elegant joinery, supplemented by elaborated carvings, enhances the appearance of the timber frame. THF113530

Cast-iron columns on the Detroit Central Farmers Market building made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital.
The cast-iron columns were made to resemble stone below the capital and wood above the capital. THF113505


The building captures the exuberance and optimism of the city of Detroit as it grew in its first wave from a frontier fort and outpost, to an important city. A “useful and beautiful” market building in the city’s central square was important to this image of this growing city – as evidenced by the fact that it took only nine months from Mayor Buhl’s inaugural address of January 11, 1860 promising a new market building, to its substantial completion. Few buildings survive from this first era of growth in the city of Detroit.  

For 30 years customers engaged with vendors at the Vegetable Building in Detroit's Central Market. For 110 years the building served the public in a variety of ways on Belle Isle. Your donation will help The Henry Ford rebuild this structure in the heart of Greenfield Village. There it will inspire future generations to learn about their food sources. Make history and #PledgeYourPassion this Giving Tuesday

Jim McCabe is Collections Manager at The Henry Ford.

 

philanthropy, farming, Michigan, Detroit, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Jim McCabe, shopping, agriculture

thf53774
Left side of J.R. Jones General Store featuring large grocery “department” and a cigar case on the counter up front. (THF53774)

During the 1880s, proprietor James R. Jones would have welcomed customers to this general merchandise store—now in Greenfield Village but originally located in the rural village of Waterford, Michigan.  Jones sold everything here that townspeople, local farm families, or visiting out-of-towners might want—from groceries to fabrics to farm tools to fishing poles.  The store also served as a community gathering place, for customers to exchange news, socialize, and pick up mail.

Choices between similar products even in country stores like this one were quite plentiful.  Decisions by shoppers depended upon such things as their family background, gender, financial means, and personal values.

Here’s a sampling of some of the products that 1880s customers to the J.R. Jones store might have purchased.

thf176665
Sugar barrel (THF176665)

Sugar (approximate price: .08-.12/lb)

In a study of general store accounts from the era, customers purchased sugar more often than any other single product. It was, of course, used in cooking and baking, but large quantities of it were necessary for preserving fresh seasonal produce in the days before refrigeration. 

Sugar was available in many grades, from “A” (the highest) to brown to “X” (the lowest).  Sugar was available in bulk and, unless a storekeeper stocked several grades, customers had little choice in the quality of sugar they obtained at the local store.

thf176669
Store canisters for tea (THF176669)

Tea (approximate price: .45-.75/lb)

The Grocer’s Companion (1884) called tea the “foremost of all beverages in reference to its invigorating and restorative qualities.” Tea came in a tremendous variety of grades and types in the late 19th century, and store canisters were often specifically designed to hold the various types. They came from only one species of evergreen shrub or small tree. The differences came in how the tea was grown and how the leaves were treated.  All the tea in the J.R. Jones General Store came from China, which was considered the center of the tea industry at the time. This included:

  • “Black” teas, which underwent a fermentation process before drying.These included Oolong (strong and pungent, made from young leaves) and English Breakfast (in the 19th century, a blend that came from China, but was popularized in England).
  • “Green” teas, which were submitted immediately upon gathering to a high temperature in iron pans.These included Gunpowder (made from young leaves, fragrant and pungent taste with a greenish hue and shaped like round small shot); and Imperial (like Gunpowder but with larger leaves).

thf176668
Cans of tomatoes (THF176668)

Canned tomatoes (approximate price: .15/can)

Tomatoes were one of the most popular commercially available canned food products.  By the 1880s, improved manufacturing techniques in canning had raised the production of canned goods to a major American industry, making all manner of fruits, vegetables, and meats available year-round to just about everyone but the very poor.

Canned goods, however, had many critics. Some claimed that the food tasted “tinny,” that it was unhealthy, and that products were adulterated to add weight (this was before the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906). In some cases, women also could be looked down upon for relying on canned goods rather than canning and preserving themselves.  Nevertheless, the presence of canned goods in store accounts and advertisements attests to their popularity. 

thf176670
Packages of Magic Yeast and One Spoon Baking Powder (THF176670)

Magic Yeast and One Spoon Baking Powder (approximate price: .15-.25/box)

Despite the introduction of several different brands of baking powder during this time, yeast still remained the most popular bread-leavening agent. Many women made their own yeast and numerous recipes appeared in cookbooks. As for the commercially processed product, compressed yeast introduced by Gaff, Fleischman & Company in the 1860s, was considered the purest and most dependable form of yeast.

But many brands of packaged yeast cakes and powders, including this Magic Yeast, vied for competition in the market. Critics of these commercial yeast products claimed that their vitality could be easily destroyed by heat, cold or movement, and that they could make bread sour or moldy.  Still, they were much more convenient than the homemade. 

Baking powder, a leavening agent usually made from a proportion of cream of tartar and carbonate of soda, was fairly new on the scene in the 1880s. It saved careful measuring of one or both of these ingredients in baked goods, and saved hours of time over yeast in making bread. Dozens of baking powders, like this One Spoon brand, were available on the market.

But baking powder, more than just about any other cooking ingredient of the late 19th century, raised suspicion and complaints among housekeepers and advice writers alike.  High cost, poor performance, and leaving a bitter taste in foods comprised some of these complaints. But even more alarm was raised by accusations of adulteration—that is, the addition of impure ingredients like lime, earth, or alum, which could actually injure people’s health. Fortunately, most of these problems were worked out in the next decade or so, when the advent of “quick breads” really began. It was the adventurous housewife that tried baking powder in the 1880s. 

thf176673
Variety of graniteware coffee boilers (THF176673)

Graniteware coffee boiler (approximate price: 1.00-1.35)

When enamel-coated ironware was introduced in 1874, it was marketed as light (compared to cast iron), handsome (the gray mottled surface was considered picturesque and elegant), wholesome (wouldn’t rust or corrode like tinware and didn’t contain poisonous arsenic, lead, or antimony like cheap imitations), and durable (actually, it chipped easily but 3 out of 4 points in its favor weren’t bad!). Manufacturers of this so-called granite ironware, or graniteware (because of its visual appearance like granite), optimistically claimed that these goods would entirely supplant the “common and unserviceable” stamped tinware. (Actually, it was aluminum that did this in the early 20th century.)  In the 1890s, enamel-coated steel replaced much of the earlier granite ironware.

Coffee, as an accompaniment to breakfast and other meals, was an extremely popular beverage at this time. The most common way of preparing it was in an open boiler on a cookstove.

thf176674
Package of Rising Sun Stove Polish (THF176674)

Package of Rising Sun Stove Polish (approximate price: .08-.10/pkg)

This product would have been used in conjunction with blacking to clean and give luster to cast-iron stoves. It was mixed with a liquid agent (e.g., turpentine or soap-suds) for application to the stove. This was a crucial task for cleaning cast-iron stoves, but it was also marketed as necessary to maintaining a tasteful home. Rising Sun Stove Polish was very aggressive in its marketing. Advertisements boasted that it was “the oldest and most reliable stove polish in the world” and that it would “keep stoves looking good and operating efficiently.” 

thf176666
Case of boxes of cigars (THF176666)

Cigars (approximate price: .04-.08 apiece)

During the 1880s, cigar-smoking was extremely popular, especially among men who wanted to appear prosperous and ambitious. Unlike smoking tobacco (for pipes) and plugs of chewing tobacco, where production was monopolized by a few large national manufacturers, cigars were still produced at thousands of small, local manufactories across the country as well as in Havana, Cuba. Detroit had several cigar factories. As a result of this great number of producers, cigars came in a daunting array of sizes, colors, grades, and flavors. To the uninitiated, sometimes only the eye-catching images on their boxes in the store’s showcase distinguished one brand from another.

thf176671
Packages of Ayer’s Hair Vigor (THF176671)

Ayer’s Hair Vigor (approximate price: .50)

The hairstyles of the 1880s required an abundant supply of healthy hair in order to make it stand up as high and look as natural as possible. Hair dressings and restorers abounded, with Ayer’s Hair Vigor among the best known. 

This product claimed to promote hair growth, restore color and vitality to faded or gray hair, and render the hair soft, youthful, and glossy. It contained cream of tartar (removed the reddish color in hair caused by rust from iron-rich well water); glycerin (a moisturizer); lead acetate (which claimed to remove the gray hair); and a caustic soda (a.k.a. sodium hydroxide or lye), which claimed to be a hair relaxer or straightener. The colorful images of young women with long, luxurious hair on Ayer’s trade cards and packages must have encouraged older women to try this product as well. 

Medical journals attacked Ayer’s Hair Vigor as unsafe and denounced its manufacturer as deceiving the public. But the product’s allure persisted, and certainly J.R. Jones and his customers would have been unaware of any safety warnings from such journals. 

thf176672
Jars of Woodworth’s Ursina Bear Grease (THF176672)

Woodworth’s Ursina Bear Grease (approximate price: .12)

Pomades, oils, and dressings for keeping hair in place and sometimes for promoting hair growth were popular men’s grooming aids in the late 19th century. In fact, that is the major reason why ornamental lace tidies and antimacassars were so common—to protect the surfaces of chairs and sofas from these often greasy concoctions. This particular product claimed to be “real bear grease procured from the Rocky Mountains and very carefully refined.” 

thf176678
3 varieties of castor sets (THF176678)

Castor set (approximate price: $1.50-2.25)

In the 1880s, silver-plated castor sets frequently formed the centerpiece of the dining table for middle-class families, reflecting the families’ good taste and economic status.  Castor sets would have been a necessity in places like hotels and boardinghouses, where large groups of people dined—each with different tastes in food. They were available in a tremendous variety of styles and prices. Most contained two to six bottles, generally for holding pepper, mustard, oil, and vinegar, and sometimes other spices.

thf176676
Boxes of men’s and women’s collars (THF176676)

Men’s and women’s collars (approximate price: .10-.30)

A white shirt with a white collar and cuffs marked the man as someone of means, or at least on his way up. But clean collars and cuffs were always a necessity, no matter what color and style shirt a man wore. Enter replaceable collars and cuffs.

Men’s collars of the 1880s were plain in style and were made of paper, celluloid, or linen. Collars were high and tight, either “standing” (straight up around the neck) or “turned outward” (tips or side edges turned outward or over and slightly down), complementing the coats which buttoned high during this time. Paper and celluloid collars were considered disposable, while linen collars could be washed and ironed and kept fresh for a period of time.

Women’s dresses were time-consuming to make and costly to have someone else make. Purchasing a new collar was an inexpensive way of freshening or updating the look of a dress that had been around for a while. Ladies’ collars were detachable and could be used multiple times on various garments. They ranged in price, from fairly plain linen collars to intricate lace ones.

thf176675
Men’s derbies and straw hats (THF176675)

Men’s hats (approximate price: .50-1.75 for straw; $1.00-2.50 for derby)

While top, or silk, hats might have been worn by a wealthy city gentleman going to a fancy affair, Waterford men would have generally worn a bowler hat, supplemented by a low-crowned straw hat for summer occasions. The hard felt bowler (usually referred to as a derby in the United States) was a staple, durable hat that could have been worn all day long—even at work—and was generally considered a symbol of respectability. 

Also during this time, the hat industry aimed to persuade every man to purchase a new straw hat at the beginning of every summer. Straw hats tended to be water-resistant to hold up even on rainy days.

thf176677
Bolts of fabric (THF176677)

Fabric (approximate price: .05 for print to 1.30 for silk)

Women’s clothing was not ready-made yet, so all dresses had to be fashioned at home or by a seamstress.  Bolts of fabric and trims lined numerous shelves of general stores like this one.  The bolts of fabric in this store include:

  • “Print”– a general term for a fabric onto which patterns were printed or applied by dyes after it was machine-woven.Available in a huge variety of designs, it was about the cheapest and most durable, but least elegant, dress fabric available.
  • Linen – One of the oldest textile fabrics known, this would have been imported.It was more elegant and fashionable than cotton, but also quite a bit more expensive and harder to maintain.
  • Wool – A very warm and durable fabric, produced in mills in the eastern United States.(In fact, the fleece from sheep raised on farms around Waterford was shipped to these mills.)Wool was very serviceable for winter clothing.
  • Silk – Noted for its resiliency and elasticity, this would have been imported.It was quite a bit more expensive than wool, and dresses made of this material would have been elegant and stylish.

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden, shopping

thf119939

thf115221

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.

thf119789
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.”
  THF119789

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.  

thf119591
The northern Indiana family shown in this circa 1900 parlor photograph could have obtained many of the goods by mail order—even the piano. 
THF119591

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

thf119786
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. 

thf204912
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.
 THF204912

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.

thf158049
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.
THF158049

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.

shopping, mail order, by Jeanine Head Miller