Frugal Lessons From The Past: The Mail Order Catalog

History can provide some of the best lessons to help us figure out solutions to today’s problems.

Concerning finances, thrift, frugality and simple living there are tried and true bedrock principals that we should never forget.

This post is part of a series that focuses on some of those principals by going to source materials for inspiration.

Carl Hamilton (1914 – 1991) served as vice president and administrator of Iowa State University, was an editor and publisher and late in life wrote about Iowa history and his own memories of growing up on an Iowa farm. The following excerpts are from one of his books, In No Time At All, and follow the lifespan of a mail order catalog on the farm.

“When the average farm home, uncluttered by radio or television, had only a weekly and possibly a daily newspaper and some magazines, the arrival of a Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebuck catalog was a major event.”

“It was carefully studied by parents as they compared prices in their never-ending struggle to match resources with necessities. “Making out the order” was a project that might go on for some weeks and would include everything from long underwear to farm tools. Clearly desires must have been stimulated beyond means by the long hours of studying the vast array of merchandise with prices which ranged from Good to Better to Best.”

“The arrival of the catalog was even more of an event for the kids. Hours and hours of long winter evenings and rainy Sunday afternoons were spent thumbing through the catalog – a page at a time!”

“But what an ignominious end it had. One so in keeping with the times: waste nothing! Where did that valued, much-treasured book end up? In the privy! There, of course, it served a double purpose. It served as “tissue” – although hardly of the scented, soft textured brands of milady’s toilette. Also it provided one last chance to review the well-studied pages. And, providing the weather was right, meaning it wasn’t so cold as to bring chilblains to unaccustomed places or so warm as to encourage flies, the catalog added interest to that interlude in the day’s activities. Of course, it did have limitations even for that final purpose. Even under the most extreme circumstances, when nothing was being wasted, the slick paper sections did leave something to be desired as “tissue.” There came a time when the remains – the high fashion section – was consigned en masse to the lower regions! Ker-plop!”

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  1. This article gave me a chuckle as well as bringing memories back of my childhood spent pouring over the latest Sears & Roebuck catalog. Our catelog didn't end up in the privy but did get looked over very carefully by all in the family as we made wish lists and school clothes lists for our parents.

  2. I can go one further with the Sears catalog. My grandmother folded each page from the top corner down to the center and made a great door stop. Flo


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