MPR’s Nancy Fushan presents a report on Minnesota Historical Society’s exhibit, called "The Wish Book." The exhibit explores the role of the mail order catalog in American life at the turn-of-the-century.
Program includes descriptive history, as well as various interviews with exhibit curator, conservator, and visitors.
Read the Text Transcription of the Audio.
(00:00:16) Witness to see that catalog how my something and if we didn't get what we wanted we could wish for it. Anyway, there's a lot of things in the small town. That's you just never see and you look through that catalog and all I was really Dreamland at Christmas time all those pretty dollies of the things. I've heard that they really get educated a lot of people reading about different things just in the whole catalog my mother made all my clothes and I wish didn't wish to wish we're going to have a picture taken. So I got a button pressing exactly the one I want with all the eyelets and I did get that. I've still got a picture had a little back go here everybody waited to know for the especially when I was out in the country, you know, oh they waited for that mailman, and he didn't bring what they ordered. Is more trouble of course, some things didn't fit quite right, but the kids warm the school anyway, (00:01:05) the rapid industrialization of America in the 19th century created an enormous gap between rural and urban America, but by 1890 advances in communication and transportation were beginning to bridge that Gap the development of mass production and mass merchandising made it possible for both the rural and urban communities to get a variety of new Goods which would ultimately transform daily life the US Post Office started a daily delivery door to door system back in 1863 by 1891 the system had spread to many rural areas and that's where the wish book really had its Genesis the father of generalized mail-order merchandise Montgomery Ward went further. He used Minnesota politics to assure its birth exhibit curator, Nick Westbrook. He worked out an arrangement with the Grange movement, which was just beginning here in Minnesota and elsewhere. Country in the 1860s right after the Civil War and he worked out a deal where in exchange for the Grange mailing list Montgomery Ward agreed to supply to Granger's variety of Grange regalia that they would wear to their meetings. So he got an enormous mailing list, which he was then able to send out catalogs to and that got him started his business grew and grew and grew and the The Fortunes The Grange began declining after a while as the political temper in the country began shifting in the 1880s and 90s, but the alliance with a grange had been strong enough at just the right time for Montgomery Ward that he was able to really get a good running start about a decade after Montgomery Ward start. Another mail-order house would get its Beginnings in Minnesota one. That would become Ward's largest competitor Richard Sears started as a Railroad Station Agent. To leg refer here in Minnesota. And when he was Station Agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, he received a shipment of watches that turned out to be unclaimed and the watch company offered him a bargain if he would take care of selling them for him. So he telegraphed on up and down the line trying to cajole other station agents into buying watches and did very very well at that. So well that he decided after about six months of buying and selling watches that this was a great business for him and moved to Minneapolis and started a mail-order jewelry business in a building on the site of Minneapolis public library today after carrying on that business and gradually expanding the variety of goods that he carried over five or six year period he finally slam down his fist on a catalog of Montgomery Ward catalog and said gentlemen, that's the game. I want to get into that's the biggest I am in the United States today the whole generalized mail-order business and so he tried running that kind of a really broad General mail order business from both Minneapolis and Chicago for a few years and decided he was just running back and forth too much rail connections weren't as good out of Minneapolis as they were out of Chicago. So the operation moved completely to Chicago and since about 1900 Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward have been chicago-based companies from the very outset. The major catalogs capitalized on Modern advertising techniques to sell their Wares copywriters were told to take pains in describing the items. Richard Sears could make a box of straight pins as enticing as an exotic parlor organ but making the catalogs interesting reading was just one way of getting consumers into the mail-order habit. They offered people catalogs for free the encourage people to write out orders in their own way. Don't worry about filling out the form just tell us what you want your own way and we'll try to figure it out encouraging people. This is a time when immigration to the Midwest is very very strong encouraging people to take time in their own homes to study out the catalogs to translate carefully and then to send in an order in their own native tongue and somebody on the receiving end in Chicago would sit down and translate and then send you the goods. So as an immigrant you didn't need to worry about some high pressure salesman on the other side of the counter trying to sell you a bill of goods by talking a mile a minute you could sit down and leisurely go through it and debate back and forth across the family kitchen table and try to decide which kinds of things you were going to order. They are catalogs are for a whole variety of useful and necessary household items at very very reduced prices to try to get you into the Habit. Try it you'll like it kind of approach Catalog companies offered stereopticon views of the Interior the factory and we have some of those in the exhibit. If you couldn't go to Chicago to the World's Fair in 1893, you could order through the Sears Roebuck catalog a set of 50 stereopticon slides of the whole mail order operation and you could go on the tour of Sears Roebuck 6 plant in Chicago in your own living room for only 50 cents. Everybody's parents use these practically everybody probably has some one of the things from these turn of the century catalogs and their garage. The amazing thing is to realize that all of those came from the catalogs and the absolute Marvel of having that kind of a Cascade of goods available to you at the other end of this (00:06:59) book. Temperature I've seen that little planter there. And I've seen the plows like that. We thank we had them at the place that I lived at. My my dad used to plow of one of those washing machine like that. I can remember her pushing that the lever back and forth, you know, and then I hand wringing the clothes. We used to help her push through take turns the kids would have to push that lever back and forth phonograph with around records and I often wonder what happened to it. I have one of those corn planters. I chair telephone creamed and send off your money and then these (00:07:58) things arrive fresh spanking new in the in the crater in the package and really change people's lives to the new catalog buying public the wish book offered just about anything under the sun. Well, maybe not quite everything as evidenced by the letter to Ward's from a bachelor seeking a wife the company according to the legend responded that they could not provide such a service and wouldn't advise mail-order romances. But in the true Spirit of business hype they went on to say that if the man eventually found a maid in more conventional ways towards would certainly have items to please both the bride and groom for $27 the happy couple could order the Acme parlor organ change the whole nature of your family parlor and the kind of family life family activities that took place in the family parlor suddenly became possible for mother your sister to sit there in the Parlor and play away on the Parlor organize. The rest of the family is sitting in a corner taking a look at stereopticon slides of the holy land that you would ordered through the mail order catalog. Somebody else's over in the corner flipping through the mail order catalog looking for the next thing they wanted and that Did very special sets of slides we had a photographer here in St. Paul name TW Ingersoll who supplied stereopticon slides to Sears Roebuck. He was a Minnesota manufacturer who cashed in on the whole mail-order phenomenon, and he did a variety of special photographic projects through Sears Roebuck when the earthquake happened in San Francisco in 1960. He got a special pass from Richard Sears and took off to San Francisco by Train and arrived when the city was still in utter destruction and photographed a series of 60 stereopticon slides which were then sold on an exclusive basis in the next catalog. They were promoted as being especially desirable for Sunday School classes. You got a special discount if you ordered in bulk for your Sunday school class so that they could see the acts of God wrought on. The American landscape it was the beginning of conspicuous consumption in America. But since the average American family income in 1900 was only seven hundred dollars a year careful choices had to be made the gramophone in the exhibit was a fairly expensive item that costs $50. So you really had to save for a while before you send send in for that the washing machine on the other hand only cost two dollars and forty-seven cents the granted it would only wash six shirts at a time and you had to fill it with cold water for 10 hours before you used it to swell up the woods so that it wouldn't leak you had to carry it outside before you pulled the plug to let it drain out but that cost two dollars and forty-seven cents a cowboy hat and they sold zillions of hats Cowboy had cost five dollars and fifty cents so you could buy two washing machines for the price of a good Stetson. You could buy all of the various materials. He needed to build a complete house many people are restoring final turn of the century houses these days busily restoring their Golden Oak sideboards and moldings and that kind of thing and many people don't realize that all of those moldings and side boards and stained glass windows and doors and cut glass panels and all that could be had straight out of the Sears catalog. And in fact many houses that are being so carefully restored now are probably largely fitted out with a mail order items and not only did the catalogs offer items. You could afford to buy it your current income. They catalogs advertised ways to increase your future income. For example, you could order through the catalog complete outfit to set yourself up as a optician selling people eyeglasses measuring their eyes and all of that and they advertise that is giving you the opportunity to move up into the middle class and Start earning $1,000 a year as a member of a respectable profession that probably would have come in handy for the local shopkeepers who watch their retail business fade away in the mail-order Mania many of the stores had served as Community post offices and when that function ceased with rural free delivery dozens of new Minnesota ghost towns inhabited by cobweb General Stores came into existence small town Merchants really panicked. I think it's not too strong to say that they really panicked at the Hard competition from mail order business. The mail order companies could offer tremendously wider variety of goods. They could offer Goods than everybody in town hadn't already tried on or picked away at the edges of goods got shopworn pretty quickly in some of these small towns stores. So small town Merchants reacted in a variety of ways. They would encourage their customers to sabotage the mail or Operations by sending in orders under fictitious names by sending four things and returning them by sending for all the free samples. They could they began talking about Sears Roebuck as shears and Sawbuck talking about Montgomery Ward is monkey Ward all kinds of bad names like that. They would offer to pay a bounty for your mail order catalog. You bring in your mail order catalog to my store and I'll give you a dollar and they'd have catalog burnings on the Main Street. The mail order companies responded by saying take it in get your dollar from your mail-order Merchants will send you another catalog in a plain brown wrapper. Nobody'll know the difference. At firms like Sears and Ward's major Capital expansion in Minnesota resulted in new buildings, which became routine tourist stops. The wards Midway store was considered the IDS Tower of it's time to fill those buildings the companies hired large Workforce has jobs ranged from district managers to stock boys who traveled from aisle to aisle filling orders on roller skates. (00:14:34) I worked up in the shoe department in the mail or do you know anyone who were part of the roller skating stock boy. We're doing a roller skate. I did it one time. I filled filled Artisan realized. What was it? Like it was very exciting. I loved it. I worked part-time at that time and I was hired in the shoe department and worked on roller skates and field orders. I really liked it. Did you have to know how to roller skate before you got the job or did they train you in? Oh, I guess roller skating just came natural to most people my age then because we always rollers. When we were children, you know, so they didn't train us and they just gave some roller skates and we're all done. I can remember a slogan in today out today, you know, you get you get the mail in and Merchandising would go out that same day. Isn't that right? Yeah, that that was there's no slogan way backing to into doing today and I'll today and satisfaction guaranteed or your money be refunded people came into the city. That's the first building. They look for hours. They were the word stores or the Sears. I suppose a Minneapolis Shadow. Did it really generate that kind of really a did, you know, because you had no department stores. We finally had a little one up there. But still it wasn't it wouldn't can't imagine how much it really meant then much more than now. I'm (00:15:58) sure immense is the Boom in the 19th century catalog business was the catalog business itself could not escape a larger 20th century economic (00:16:08) explosion. (00:16:30) When automobiles became widely came into wide use during the 1920s and 30s and most Americans suddenly found themselves living within about an hour's drive from a fairly large city of maybe 25,000 people then became possible to just hop in the car and go downtown and do your shopping and person to actually see the quality merchandise you were going to get to have instant gratification. He didn't need to wait and send off your order and then wait and wait and wait for it to come back that really began to cut into the mail-order business significantly. So the mail order companies responded in a couple of ways one was To open Regional distribution centers, which could speed up the process of getting the mail order goods to people the other was to start opening catalog display stores in small towns all over the country particularly here in the Midwest and gradually to start opening the kind of retail stores that are familiar to many of us today. When we think of Montgomery Ward Sears Roebuck or pennies are some of the other big mail-order chains the items on display at the Minnesota Historical Society are but a small example of the nearly 25,000 Goods available through mail order in 1900. But in many cases it's taken the society over 50 years to collect the artifacts and it took conservator technician Dave Kristofferson many months to restore the items Kristofferson who was a blacksmith spent much of his time dealing with the ravages of dirt and rust. What's what we have tried to do. Between myself is conservator. And Nick is is cured her of this exhibit is to study these these objects the way they look you know, what they show is how people have used these objects in the in the years when they were in use it that's part of the history of the objects. You know, how how they've gotten worn how they've gotten broken it broken down how someone has may be repaired them with a little piece of wire or string or cloth or something and they all have a kind of a to me. They all have a kind of a real homey human kind of nature to them. They they show where they've been handled by lots and lots of people and and in made use of so I'm not so interested in the in the years that it was neglected, but I'm interested in the years that it was used and I try to preserve or try to bring out that in each object. Do you have a favourite object and all of them well, I like all of the objects. I think I like them all. There's I like the Victorian seem to have had a love of putting little embellishments on everything everything fond of painting things bright colors and pinstriping the paint and and I think maybe some of the most enjoyable work on it was perhaps acting like a detective and trying to Decide or decipher what the object was supposed to look like when it was new and and defined to find things like stencil designs under the dirt and bring those out as best I can without making them phony in any way but just bringing out the designs that are there the detective work will go on according to Nick Westbrook while the show continues through the coming year. He's thumbing through his own wish book for additional items. We'd like to find a Kenwood windmill, for example, the mail order catalog sold windmills, and of course those remained in use here in Minnesota until rural electrification made it unnecessary for wind powered water pumping on Family Farms, but we'd very much like to find a windmill particularly the upper part at the top of the tower part with the blades and those windmills were fairly expensive kind. Farm machinery, they cost about $20. We'd also like to find a banquet lamp the kind of lamp that had to Globes stacked on top of each other filled with kerosene and a wick and a chimney and then a shade on top a lot of those are around but so many people have electrified them now to continue them and use in their own homes, and we'd like to find one that has not been electrified and that those are the kinds of things that we would certainly include in the exhibit if we were able to come across them Nick Westbrook curator of the new Minnesota Historical Society show the wish book. I'm Nancy Fusion.