Catalog mail orders brought necessities in the days gone by
BY LILY KONGSLIEN
Special to the Star Journal
Years ago rural folks had to depend on mail order catalogs to choose their purchases for their home and family. Stores were miles away and it was so much handier to get out the catalog, make out an order, get a money order from the mailman, and then anticipate the arrival of your supplies. I recall the Montgomery Ward catalog, the Sears and Roebuck catalog and the Alden’s catalog.
In the spring of the year, when a good house-cleaning took place, we would place orders for new oilcloth for the kitchen table, and probably a new linoleum rug for the kitchen area. Linoleum did not survive a lot of traffic, so a new piece was needed each spring. With the good parts cut out of the old to make small rugs and mats. It was a family undertaking to decide on which pattern we would order. Mother always wanted a small pattern that would not easily show dirt; we wanted bright colors and something different to enjoy for the coming year. Mother would occasionally order some special material to make new kitchen curtails, but usually these were fashioned from printed flour sacks.
“There were times in the winter when we didn’t get into the stores in town for a month or more, and we could depending on our rural mail carrier to deliver them to our mail box in a week.”
During the summer, getting ready for school in the fall, I would have the privilege of ordering fabric for several new dresses which mother would make for me. Looking at some pictures of available material I would make my choice. After picking out the pattern I wanted, two dresses would be from the same pattern with different fabric. Ordering shoes was quite a procedure – we stood on a sheet of paper as our parents drew around the outside of our foot. That would give the size, and then we picked out the style and type of shoe we wanted. Each spring we were allowed to order a pair of tennis shoes; we wore them a bit during the summer, but during our work on the farm and play time we were barefoot. Just about every order included a need and thread for Mother’s sewing machine and shoe soles and patches and glue for the mending of our shoes and winter boots.
Father ordered kegs of nails and staples, files and other tools as needed for his work around the farm and fox yard.
All things were taken special care of since buying new things was quite costly and money was scarce. If things could possibly be mended or fixed in some way, that was done instead of buying new.
Mail order catalogs also carried houses – you had your choice of the style, etc. and the parts and sections would be sent to you and you would then construct your own home. We knew of one family in our area who ordered a Sears and Roebuck home, and it turned out to be a very nice house for this family. Our father did order parts for his car, such as springs, tires, etc.
Food supplies were ordered in large quantities, such as canned goods, large boxes of raisins and prunes, flour, sugar, coffee, yeast, large buckets of peanut butter and various spices. I really don’t know if sending through the catalog was cheaper than buying the same things in town, but there were times in the winter when we didn’t get into the stores in town for a month or more, and we could depending on our rural mail carrier to deliver them to our mail box in a week. These were the days when our mailbox was nearly a mile from our home. Some boxes were very heavy and in the winter our toboggan made it more fun that work to carry packages home! I remember my mother ordering a set of dishes, and they arrived safely to her cupboard without a chip or a piece broken, even though we had fun racing home with the cargo through deep drifts. Each spring a special order was sent, to a hatchery I believe, for a number of little yellow fluffy chicks. The mailman left a notice in our mailbox the day before to insure that we would be there when he arrived with little chicks.
There were “surprise” bags for 50 cents, and I ordered one, but was very disappointed with a bag of paper flowers; I never fell for that again.
We had to always be careful in making out the orders to be sure that the sizes, color, etc. were accurate as sending things back was not an easy procedure. Sometimes there would be substitutes sent in place of what we ordered, but we were usually pleased. One time at Christmas I did, however, order a small baby doll, and when it arrived it was a boy doll. I did accept it and called that doll “Boy.” I guess we were easier to please back in the good old days!
Specialty items today are featured in many of the catalogs we find in our mailboxes today, but when I think of the old mail order catalogs, I feel that our everyday lives depended on this method of buying our needed supplies. Shopping in our many diversified stores today is a challenge, because we have so many different things to choose from. Shopping then and shopping now, it’s still fun for us all.