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Show me the clothes of a country and I can write history.
A beloved chronicle of Americana, the mail-order catalog is a quintessential element of our country's history. As early as 1744 Benjamin Franklin, the first mail-order merchant, issued a list of 600 books to be sold by mail. As both mirror and record of the people, no other book has served to the same degree. The catalog kept pace with improvements in technology and changes in fashion, fanning the flame of consumer demand and enabling it to offer standardized, reliable items for the comfort of even the most isolated farmers in the land. The democratization of clothing in America owes a great deal to the mail-order industry, which made reasonably priced, good quality garments available to a broad spectrum of consumers. Economically, socially, and geographically catalogs allowed everybody to participate as a culture of consumption.
Sometimes called the "Farmer's Bible," the catalog occupied a place of honor in the farm kitchen, while the actual Bible was relegated to the seldom-used parlor. The first of these publications was the Montgomery Ward catalog, which predated Sears by fourteen years. Affectionately dubbed the "Wish Book," the Grolier Club, a distinguished society of bibliophiles, named it in 1946 "one of the hundred most influential books on American life." They claimed that "No idea ever mushroomed so far from so small a beginning, or had so profound an influence on the economics of a continent, as the concept, original to America, of direct selling by mail, for cash ... the mail-order catalog has been perhaps the greatest single influence in increasing the standard of American middle-class living. It brought the benefit of wholesale prices to city and hamlet, to the crossroads and the prairies; it indicated cash payment as against crippling credit; it urged millions of housewives to bring into their homes and place upon their backs and on their shelves and on their floors creature comforts which otherwise they could never have hoped for and above all, it substituted sound quality for shoddy."
Aaron Montgomery Ward had worked in a barrel factory for 25 cents a day, stacked bricks for 30 cents, been a country storekeeper and a traveling salesman for Chicago department stores in several rural areas, acquainting him with farmers' needs and giving him the idea to sell to members of Grange societies by mail. Robert Hendrickson, author of The Grand Emporiums says, "Ward found that farmers were objecting bitterly to the prices they paid for goods at the traditional but obsolescent country stores. ... Not only were prices high and storekeepers often dishonest, but the choice of goods was frequently limited at the inefficient general store, and if the farmer complained, the storekeeper—honestly or not—advised that he had to buy what his wholesaler offered at his wholesaler's prices." In 1872, with $1,600 in savings, Ward founded his mail-order business. His first mailing was a one-page price list of 163 items mostly priced at a dollar, sent primarily to members of the Grange—a political organization founded by farmers to combat discriminatory laws and practices by big business against small individual farmers.
The first bound catalog, issued in 1875, was 3 × 5 inches and consisted of 32 pages with illustrations. Ward boasted, "Give me your age and describe your general build, and we will in nine cases out of ten, give you a fit." On the inside cover he explained how he was able to sell for such low prices by buying directly from manufacturers, eliminating the middleman, and keeping his overhead low, claiming to save customers "40 to 100 percent which are the profits of the middlemen." Just five years later sales exceeded $10 million. Much of his success was due to being appointed official supply house for the Illinois Grange, which he used in his advertising, as "The Original Grange Supply House selling to Grangers, other farmers and mechanics at the lowest wholesale prices," and for his policy of "Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back." Ward's was dedicated to providing creature comforts for life on the prairies. In its early days the company was held in such high esteem that it was thought to be able to supply the gamut of merchandise from "love powders" to embalming fluid. Everything necessary to farmers' existence was available, from groceries to liniment, while most of the non- essentials were for their wives. Every item was clearly illustrated and the first mail-order picture of a woman's dress was published in the Montgomery Ward catalog for 1878.
By the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago the catalog had mushroomed into a two pound, 544-page volume. It was already widely used in rural schools as a textbook to teach everything from arithmetic to drawing. It was employed to drill children in reading and spelling; they practiced arithmetic by filling out orders and totaling them. They copied the illustrations in the catalog and they used postal zone maps as an aid in learning geography. Girls cut out the pictures in old catalogs for paper dolls.
Most importantly, farm families learned what was happening in the wider world. In spite of the fact that they were widely separated geographically and often ethnically, emigrating from many different countries, the catalog helped create a land of homogenous people who all desired the same material things pictured in the mail-order catalogs. Customers were invited to write to Ward's in twelve different foreign languages, including Czech and Russian. With the increase in railroad routes and the introduction of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 and parcel post in 1913, no home was beyond the reach of the mail-order merchant.
Dwight Hoover's memoir, A Good Day's Work, recalls his boyhood on an Iowa farm in the early 1930s, providing invaluable insight into farm life and the way in which clothing was worn:
"The daily routine was almost always the same. My father would awaken me at five or five-thirty to do the morning chores. I would descend the stairs in my flannel pajamas to dress behind the dining room stove, shivering until I put on my long winter underwear and my first layer of clothes (a long-sleeve cotton or wool flannel shirt and denim overalls, not jeans). The myth that farm children were sewed into their underwear at the beginning of winter and cut out in the spring was just that, a myth. No one I knew had that done, but they, like me, changed their underwear infrequently. I put on a clean pair at least every week. For special occasions I would change more often.
"Having fully dressed with my sheepskin coat and galoshes, I would go to the barn with my father by the light of a kerosene lantern—until 1937 when the farm was electrified.
"I had gotten my school clothes in September; among these were usually a new pair of overalls and a new pair of galoshes, the four-buckle kind. (Somehow the buckles rarely lasted for more than a season.) If I had outgrown my shoes, I received a new pair of high-top work shoes. In the later thirties I would have gotten a pair of felt inserts for galoshes that would cover several pairs of woolen socks. The inserts proved effective for keeping my feet warm during days of walking on frozen ground. Not every season but irregularly I would get either a sheepskin coat or a mackinaw. The sheepskin had a fleece lining and collar, with a canvas outer shell. It was utilitarian and could take hard use; it was not a fancy dress coat as today's can be. The canvas might be ripped and torn by protruding nails or pieces of wood jutting out from unexpected places. The mackinaw was usually wool and more likely to be worn on dressy occasions."
In 1920 the farm population was about 32 million, 30 percent of the U.S. total. When evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson walked out on the stage of her Foursquare Gospel Church in Los Angeles with a full milk pail and asked how many had ever lived on a farm, the entire audience rose. As late as 1935 only one farm home in ten was wired for electricity and most had no running water. Household appliances such as washers and vacuum cleaners were available for use with electricity, steam, or hand operation. The automobile was gaining in popularity, still farm families continued to rely heavily on the catalog. Unpaved roads were often impassable due to snowdrifts during the winter and mud in the spring. However, a segment of the population who formerly shopped by mail could now drive into town and visit a retail establishment where garments could be seen, tried on, paid for, and carried out without waiting for parcel post to deliver them. Thus, the customer base for catalog fashion was dwindling, limited increasingly to the most isolated. Nevertheless, the president of the company, in his introduction to the 1927-28 catalog, stated that eight million people were customers in the preceding year, representing an increase of three million over the preceding three years. While practical clothing and farm equipment accounted for much of the volume, Ward's also attempted to woo the fashion conscious customer with "New Idea" shops, which sold "only designs from Paris or New York—the twin style centers of the world," claiming that "the business of our New Fashion shops is probably the fastest growing in the United States."
Ward provided fashionable attire for the women whose sole arbiter was the catalog. Glamour was lent to apparel by ascribing it to Paris or New York. Typically, "Everything about this frock suggests its Fifth Avenue origin," or "This frock follows a Paquin creation." The names of prominent French designers were habitually invoked. Hollywood had also begun to exert its influence. Ziegfeld Follies star Billie Burke is mentioned in connection with both a pair of women's pajamas (page 31) and one for girls (page 42).
Allusions to the twenties inevitably evoked a string of clichés—flapper, Jazz Age, Roaring Twenties, etc. Judging by the contents of the catalog, its customers' leisure hours were spent largely at home entertaining themselves by playing the banjo, mouth organ, ukulele, and accordion or listening to such favorites as "Ain't She Sweet" and "Lil' Liza Jane" on a Melophonic console phonograph. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter, the Tarzan series, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis were bestsellers. The number of Masonic and Eastern Star rings shown in the catalog attests to the popularity of fraternal organizations. The state fair was an annual event of importance to farmers and their children who displayed their Future Farmers of America or 4-H Club projects. The catalog offered much in the way of childhood pastimes. Children amused themselves with many of the same toys still beloved today such as model trains, Tinkertoys, bicycles, sports equipment for boys, and baby dolls and doll carriages for their sisters.
The decade was marked by larger than life sports personalities. With the exception of Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and Charles Lindbergh, the most popular names of the decade were sports figures such as Babe Ruth who had just hit his sixtieth home run for the New York Yankees, "Red" Grange, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, and "Big Bill" Tilden. Sportswomen were so celebrated that when Gertrude Ederle successfully swam the English channel in 1928, she was honored with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. That same year Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic. Helen Wills, "Queen Helen," the several time U.S. Lawn Tennis Association women's singles champion, known equally for her style and prowess on the courts, was a vocal proponent of short skirts, sleeveless blouses, and bare legs as essential to an effective tennis game. In order to promote their towns during the Florida land boom of the 1920s, chambers of commerce even sponsored women's basketball and swimming teams. As the first modern sports celebrities, these women exerted a profound influence on the modern ideal of physical beauty.
College added an aura of glamour and a sporty look. A "jaunty tomboy coat" for women (page 6) of fur whose "shaggy appearance is characteristic of expensive raccoon," sold for the sizable sum of $125. References such as "Hollywood model" and "Collegiate Overcoat in Popular Yale Blue" appeared in copy for young men's clothing. Even high school girls, no longer content with gingham frocks and cotton stockings, demanded silk dresses and silk stockings.
World War I had a profound influence on fashion as women replaced men in factories, drove buses and even ambulances overseas, creating the need for less constricting garments. More importantly, greater freedom for women helped lead to the passage of the woman suffrage amendment in 1920. As straight lines replaced curves in fashion as well as in architecture, the ideal body type became androgynous. Rounded hips, small waists, ample busts, and long hair, all traditional feminine attributes, were superseded by their antithesis—a boyish flatness and a short, almost mannish hairstyle.
Long tresses, considered a woman's crowning glory, were shorn and bobbed hair became the norm. In 1927 the electric waving machine, invented several decades earlier by Charles Nessler, became a sensation. Makeup was no longer considered a sign of loose morals and respectable women were applying cosmetics to enhance their appearance. Montgomery Ward sold rouge, face powder, lipstick, mascara, and eyelash curlers from companies such as Max Factor and Maybelline, may of whom are still in business. A compact to powder one's nose was an essential purse accessory and appeared as a gift suggestion on the same page as silver thimbles.
The twenties was a decade of minimal clothing for women, as the boyish figure replaced the full-blown matron of previous decades. Ward's proved equal to the challenge, offering a large number of pure silk dresses at the price of $13.75, especially remarkable considering their plethora of details—tucks, pleats, and draping. Dressy fashions, however, unlike those of the French couture, were almost never sleeveless. The waist, at its natural place at the start of the decade, fell until it settled on the hips in 1927. Conversely, from hems at mid-calf in 1920, skirts climbed gradually to their zenith in 1927, when they barely covered the knee, displaying a flash of shiny flesh-color stocking. Ward's offered fashionable stockings in light of the pared-down clothing in fashion, there are several pages of heavy-duty corsets in the 1927-28 catalog. All wool wrap coats with fur shawl collars ranged in price from $8.98 to $49.95, to a fox-collared muskrat fur at $198.75. Fur trims ranged from Manchurian wolf dog and moufflon (a small wild sheep from Asia Minor) to coney (rabbit) dyed to resemble numerous other animals including beaver. Since Ward advertised its willingness to buy raw furs from trappers, these collars may have been made from furs purchased directly by the company. Coats were available in sizes and styles to fit bust sizes from 34 to 53 inches, the "fuller figure" starting at 39 inches; proportioned sizes for 5'3" and under; and "misses" 14 through 20 years of age, bust sizes 32 to 38 inches. Girls from 7 to 14 could be kept warm for as little as $3.98 in a basic untrimmed coat or in a coat "Fit for a Princess" of all wool velour with fur collar and cuffs for $13.98. Millinery for women and girls occupied several pages. Most of the styles were based on a deep crowned cloche, which complemented the streamlined silhouette and necessitated short hair.
In spite of the pages of girls' coats and hats, there are relatively few dresses for girls below high school age. According to Middletown, the seminal study of a middle-America town in the 1920s by Robert and Helen Lynd, older girls competed for popularity through dress, hence a homemade garment was unthinkable and a disproportionate amount of the family budget went toward that end. However, little girls habitually wore homemade dresses, as well as hand-me-downs from their more fashionable sisters. The comparative ease and low cost of sewing a cotton dress by machine accounts for the number of pages devoted to brightly colored, inexpensive printed cotton piece goods suitable for the home sewer.
Boys' suits were sold with a choice of knickers or "longies," the former in sizes up to 12 years and the long pants version up to 16 years. Boys from 3 to 8 years of age could choose suits consisting of waist and shorts in a variety of styles including sailor, Eton, and lumberjack. Hats for men and boys, both functional and dressy, occupy several pages. Nobody went bareheaded. Hats, scarves, mittens, and gloves were often birthday or Christmas gifts. Men's coats were equal to harsh winters and their dress shirts were sold by neck size only. Sleeves came in one length, adjustable with sleeve garters.
The mail order industry catered to the needs of the entire family. The catalog was an illustrated encyclopedia of American life. It was a force for assimilation of immigrants of diverse nationalities into Americans. If indeed clothes make the man, Americans were both identifiable and united by their purchases. William C. Browning, an early twentieth century clothing manufacturer, while not limiting his remarks to the mail-order industry, summed up its effect on American society: "And if it be true ... that the condition of a people is indicated by its clothing, America's place in the scale of civilized lands is a high one. We have provided not alone abundant clothing at a moderate cost for all classes of citizens, but we have given them at the same time that style and character in dress that is essential to the self-respect of a free, democratic people."
Sands Point, New York
Excerpted from Montgomery Ward Fashions of the Twenties by JoAnne Olian. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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