Trading stamps were more than currency for some

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Anyone remember Green Stamps? Or Plaid stamps, Top Value stamps, or several other less popular ones?

Trade stamps, in various denominations and amounts depending upon the amount of money spent on merchandise, were given to customers by certain merchants.

Incentive

Although the merchants had to pay the trading company for the stamps, they felt the practice was an incentive for people to return to their stores, buy more stuff, and accumulate more stamps. It was up to the merchant how many stamps he gave out and many consumers went to those who gave the highest number for each dollar spent.

The accumulated stamps, which were small paper squares that came in perforated sheets with gummed backs, were moistened, usually with the tongue, and pasted in small books. These books, which were available free of charge from the merchant could, when filled with the required number of stamps, be mailed or taken to one of the trading company’s redemption centers and used like cash to get merchandise.

The trading companies periodically released catalogs with all the available merchandise pictured and priced in number of books of stamps required to get the item. As I recall, the stuff offered in the catalogs, especially from the S&H Company were first-rate, quality goods.

Most popular

S&H was the most popular of the trading stamp firms and was established by Thomas A. Sperry and Shelly B. Hutchinson.

Sperry and Hutchinson established their business in Michigan in 1896, and the concept took off to become, as the New York Times wrote: “the first independent trading stamp company to distribute stamps and books to merchants”. Given as a reward for paying cash instead of putting purchases “on the books,” the little green stamps slowly gained in popularity.

Not much is known about Hutchinson, except that he built a fine house in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1904. It appears that soon after building the house he lost it, his wife, and the business. Reportedly, Sperry somehow swindled his partner out of the business, and Hutchinson sued the S&H Company for $5 million. The case reportedly went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, but I’ve been unable to find the outcome, although it must have gone against Hutchinson, as he tried a number of business ventures later on.

Popular stamps

I don’t remember trade stamps when I was a kid although they must have been around, but by the 1950s they were wildly popular, with the majority of grocery stores, gas stations, and even department stores such as Strouss-Hershberg, which was big in our area, giving them out.

In fact, S&H boasted at the time that they printed more stamps each year than the U.S. Post Office. S&H built their business to the point where they were doing about $825 million dollars per year, generating enough profit to build a 39 story high rise office building on Madison Avenue, near W 42nd Street in New York City that was completed in 1962.

Redemption centers

S&H had some 800 redemption centers around the country where the stamps could be traded for different products. If one lived more than a set distance from a center, the products could be ordered by mail.

When I was running around the county in my little green telephone repairman’s truck, we could buy gas at a number of stations and just sign for it. I usually headed for one that offered green stamps, as did most of my co-workers. Of course, Ohio Bell never saw the stamps, they were ours.

S&H stamps were issued as singles, or in larger ones worth 10 or 50 stamps each. The books contained 24 pages, each of which to be filled by 50 single, 5 tens or one 50, making a total of 1200 stamps per book. The stamps had to be pasted into the books to be redeemed, and 1200 stamps required a lot of licking.

Good graces

I remember when my daughter Lisa was in seventh or eighth grade, she discovered the drawer into which I’d been throwing the stamps for many years. I got a number of empty books and told her that if she pasted them all into the books, I’d take her to Strouss-Hirschberg, her favorite store and one where at that time you could redeem the stamp books directly, and she could blow the whole amount on clothes.

Well, Lisa, with the help of her friend Laura, got all the stamps pasted into books, although I don’t remember how many of them she ended up with. So one Saturday I took her and Laura to the Strouss store at Southern Park Mall. They spent most of the afternoon in the girl’s department while she tried on this and that and finally settled on what she wanted.

I don’t remember how much stuff she got, but it was a lot, and earned me brownie points with my daughter for at least a day or two. At that age, fathers don’t usually stay in the good graces of their girls for long.

Comes to an end

Of course, all good things must come to an end. By the recession of the 1980s, most retailers and consumers had decided trade stamps were just too much trouble and the practice of giving trade stamps was discontinued in favor of in store incentive programs and coupons.

Other news

On another note, I just learned that the Bill Mullet steam, tractor and horse show that was scheduled for Aug. 1011 11th on Aurora Road near Augusta, Ohio, has been cancelled, so if you were planning to attend, don’t.

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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