Answer Man

Answer Man: Inflation licked trading stamp business

Q. I ate dinner recently at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. On the wall was a big metal sign for Plaid Stamps. I don’t remember Plaid Stamps, but I do recall S&H Green stamps, and yellow Top Value stamps. Famous-Barr had Eagle Stamps. What happened to all of them ? — J.T., of Millstadt

A. I can still picture the designated stamp drawer in my family’s kitchen cabinets.

Along with pens, rubber bands, half-used notepads and loose change, my folks would dutifully toss in the various stamps they earned at their favorite stores and the books to put them in. Then, when the drawer became an unruly monster every few weeks, I would sit at the table with a teacup filled with water and paste them all in.

We shopped mostly as Wessel’s Supermarket (now The Edge), so Eagle Stamps dominated the colorful pile, but there were also Plaid Stamps from A&P, Top Value from Kroger and occasional S&H Green stamps from goodness knows where. And, if memory serves, Dad contributed to the mess with Gold Bond stamps from the old Site’s Service Station (when gas was 30 cents a gallon).

Early on, it was a messy, sticky job as you wetted large panes of stamps with enough moisture to make them stick but not so much that they lost their adhesiveness. Finally, companies wised up and began issuing stamps in denominations of 50s and 10s to replace all of those singles. I can still see those machines that looked like rotary-dial telephones Wessel’s installed to dispense them in a more high-tech manner than simply ripping them from large, thick books.

And, while you were pasting, it was always fun to dream of what you might get once those books became thick and stiff with dried stamps. I still have the chess board that warped soon after I brought it home from the Plaid redemption center. And, although it hasn’t been used in decades, I think I still could fire up the ice cream freezer that we picked up from the Site’s on a gray and stormy Good Friday long ago. Eagle Stamps, though, were our favorite — you could redeem them for cash (about $2.25 per book in the ’60s, I think), although I think they were worth a quarter more if you traded for merchandise.

I suppose that was the Norman Rockwell tableau you could have found across the country for nearly a century as trading stamps exploded in popularity through much of the early 1900s. Customers loved them because they were a bonus for things they needed to buy anyway. Stores loved them because they created customer loyalty and increased sales.

According to historybusiness.org, it was 1890 when Schuster’s Department Store in Milwaukee, Wis., became the country’s very first retailer to offer stamps as a reward for customers who paid in cash. Six years later, Thomas Sperry and Shelly Byron Hutchinson began selling S&H Green Stamps to retailers, a move that would turn them into an international trading stamp giant.

At first, their business dream turned into a nightmare. In 1897, competing merchants who didn’t want to deal with the hassle and expense of a stamp program sued — and won. The Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals deemed them illegal.

The ruling, however, soon was overturned, and shoppers became increasingly stuck on stamps as a wider variety of stores — including those newfangled gas stations — began issuing them to all customers, not just those who paid cash.

By the mid-1960s, it was estimated that nearly 50 million American households were collecting stamps (when the country’s population was only 180 million). The number of trading stamp companies soared to about 300, producing 17,000 jobs and a payroll in excess of a half-billion dollars. At one point, S&H reportedly bragged that it was printing more stamps every year than the post office.

They became hot topics in American culture, showing up in everything from Philip Dick science-fiction novels to Yogi Bear cartoons. Even musical parodist Allen Sherman couldn’t resist writing an ode based on the classic standard “Green Eyes”: “All day and night I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming of redeeming. My Green Stamps for a toaster. So gleaming and deluxe.”

But as inflation skyrocketed in the 1970s, the once-burgeoning stamp business fell off a cliff as studies showed that stores offering stamps suffered lower profits because of the added expense. Looking to increase their bottom lines, stores and companies began offering preferred customer cards and other in-house rewards programs.

Knowing they were licked, stamp companies began to join mimeograph machines, wringer washers and blackboards in those remember-when conversations. In 2000, for example, S&H Green Stamps were converted to digitally managed Greenpoints. And in 2008, Eagle became one of the last to fail.

Now instead of pasting stamps, I find myself in checkout lines desperately flipping through the multitude of rewards cards on my keychain, trying hard not to show my PetCo card at PetSmart lest my membership be terminated on the spot.

I suppose that’s progress.

Today’s trivia

What was the name of the country’s first Catholic hospital and where and when did it open?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: Did you ace the “mother” of all “Friends” trivia quizzes? In alphabetical order, the actresses who played those moms were: Morgan Fairchild as Nora Tyler Bing, mother of Chandler; Teri Garr as Phoebe Abbott, birth mother of Phoebe Buffay; Christina Pickles as Judy Geller, mother of Ross and Monica; Marlo Thomas as Sandra Green, mother of Rachel; and Brenda Vaccaro as Gloria Tribbiani, mother of Joey. Give yourself an A+ if you remembered Laraine Newman showing up in season two as the mother of Phoebe’s half-brother, Frank Jr.

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