They Got Mail…  Mail Order Items from Delaware County

In the nineteenth century mail bound for Delaware County arrived by stagecoach and later by train. It was delivered to a post office, often housed in a general store.

Before the 1890s there was no rural delivery of mail to individual addresses in Delaware County. Residents had to go in person to the post office in order to pick up or send correspondence and packages.

“My parents had sent a postcard to my older brother telling him when a package was going to arrive from them. We had to go by horse and wagon to the depot at Shinhopple to pick it up.”
John Scofield, East Branch, NY

Despite the inconvenience a trip to the nearest town to pick up mail provided rural families with an opportunity to socialize and catch up with their neighbors.

General stores attempted to provide residents with needed items: flour, sugar, coffee, as well as fabric, shoes and other necessities of life.

“Besides food, we carried many other items at the store such as gas, about five gallons for a dollar, sewing notions, lamp chimneys, and clothing.”
Wanda Hoffman Henderson, Apex, NY

Rural residents purchased from mail order companies. Orders were written out and mailed to the company at the local post office.

However, over time residents began to desire items that their small town stores could not provide. Larger items or luxury items were sold through mail order houses. Many of the larger companies offered as many as 135,000 items for sale in their catalogs.

Montgomery Ward of Chicago was the first of these mail order houses. Beginning in 1872 the company offered general merchandise through its mail order catalog.

“When Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs came, we would pick out what we liked in it. Mother would make her own patterns that would be just like the picture in the catalog.”
Berniece DeSilva Stewart, Arena, NY

Sears and Roebuck Company of Chicago started as a mail order house in 1893. Their catalogs became famous for the variety of items available including larger luxury items. By the turn of the century it was the largest mail order company in the world.

“Another item that my dad bought from Sears and Roebuck Mail Order House was a three-quarter pool table. I guess he bought it to keep my brother, William and me out of mischief.”
Percy Reinhardt, Shavertown, NY

It was these specialty and large items that could not be purchased in most rural areas that made mail order houses extremely successful.

Music played an important role in the lives of rural people. Most general stores were not able to carry many musical instruments. However, through mail order catalogs, rural residents were able to purchase musical instruments cheaply and often on payment plans. In farming communities music served as an opportunity for neighbors to meet and provided a form of entertainment once the farm work had been done.

“My dad loved to dance, and after haying in the summer, he would say ‘Now we’ve got our work done, so we can have a dance.’ We’d roll up the rugs. Martha Fisk (Campbell) would come over, and we’d scrub the kitchen floor and mop in the living room and dining room. At night, everybody would come, bring food, and round and square dance until three o’clock in the morning. The music was usually provided by Earl Fisk, Windy McClain and Grace Tyrrell who played the piano.”
Cornelia “Connie” Laing Harrington,
Lake Delaware, NY

This organ is an example of some of the larger items available for sale through mail order houses. Bulky items such as pianos and organs were shipped to the local post office or general store where their owners would pick them up.

“I grew up loving music. My mother played the organ at home and at church, and she also sang beautifully. We had a pump organ at home, so I started music lessons maybe when I was about twelve years old. My grandfather bought me a piano, and I also took piano lessons. I had lessons early and loved it. I also started singing in the Congregational Church Choir when I was about ten years old.”
Frances May Benedict Hill, Sidney, NY

As early as the 1920s, listening to radio broadcasts like Amos and Andy became a popular activity that families shared together every night. Radios also played a role in spreading news of national and international events.

“My dad seemed to like all the luxuries he could afford. We had one of the first radios in town, an Atwater Kent that came with a small speaker. Dad didn’t like the small speaker, so he got one of those cone speakers. My dad bought the best of everything he could afford”
Percy Reinhardt, Shavertown, NY

In the past house cleaning was a tedious and more time-consuming process than we are used to today. Carpet sweepers and vacuums, first sold in catalogs, were designed to make the cleaning process quicker and easier.

“In the spring, my heavens, everything in the house was taken outside - even the bed springs. Everything was either scrubbed or put out in the sun. We also would bring the rugs outside and beat them with a hand-held rug beater.”
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Aikens Hume, Downsville, NY

Carpet sweeper designs have remained relatively unchanged since first introduced in the 1860s. Produced by The Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and patented in1876, this model is an example of the many brands of carpet sweeper available in mail order catalogs.

Early vacuum cleaners were advertised as a time saving device and promoted healthy living. A plunger design vacuum such as this was thought to be an improvement over bulkier pump action vacuums because it required only one person to operate.

Often thought of as an electric-era appliance, vacuums powered by hand were offered through Sears and Roebuck as late as 1909. A similar style of vacuum cleaner was advertised in the Delaware Express in 1914. Operated partially by motor and hand pump, these early vacuums were an improvement on the earlier models that were operated solely by hand.

During the nineteenth century general stores offered some medicines, along with home remedies. Mail order medicinal companies, however, offered everything from cure-all tonics to medical advice, greatly expanding one’s options.

“Ma-le-na salve was an old standby that you could purchase at the grocery store. One time when Ken and I were playing around outside where Dad was boiling the maple syrup down, we got to fooling around. Ken raised up and hit the trough. All that hot sap went right on his back. He got blistered badly. We used Ma-le-na on that. In fact, we used Ma-le-na for everything!”
Parker Utter, Johnson Hollow, Town of Roxbury, NY

Sunlamps such as this were meant to replicate the perceived benefits of sunlight. Ultra-Violet rays were used to treat nervousness and other neurological conditions, and skin diseases. Used in the home, as well as hospitals, it was a treatment that several mail order doctors promoted through their pamphlets. 

Advertised as “Invalid Chairs” in popular mail order catalogs of the late nineteenth century, this is an example of a specialty health-related item. A variety of different sizes and styles of wheelchairs were available depending on the person’s specific need or budget.

“Neither I nor my sisters, Jane and Susan have pleasant memories of the lamp because the only time it was used was when we were sick. It was mostly called upon for head and chest colds (congestion and ear aches/infections) My parents believed in it and that’s all that matters.”
Thomas Merritt, Delhi, NY

Free rural delivery of mail to homes was not offered until 1896. Even then mail was not delivered to many outlying areas for several more years. The post office continues to play a pivotal role in rural society, connecting it to the outside world.

“In those days, the mail had to go through even in the wintertime. My brother Earl, was a rural mail carrier. He would put on his big, full length, sheepskin coat, sheepskin gloves, hat, and boots. He’d put a soap stone in the cutter and be on his way. Earl also took his lunch, and quite often, he wouldn’t eat all of it. When he’d come home, I’d be looking for that frozen, left-over sandwich or something frozen harder than a bullet. Oh, I just loved that.”
Raymond “Bud” Friend, Delhi, NY

Later on, mail order companies sought to better serve their rural customers by using the most modern technologies available to them. In the early 20th Century this took the form of telephone ordering services.

With increased availability of consumer goods in area stores, mail order houses lost favor with many customers after World War I.

In recent times, however, mail order has regained popularity. Today’s companies now use the technology of the internet (along with phone and mail) to accomplish the same goals as their predecessors.

All objects on display are from the collections of the Delaware County Historical Association. 

Quotes are from Fragments of Yesterday by Anne McCall and Mary Jane Henderson.

The quote attributed to Thomas Merritt is taken from the research files of DCHA.

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