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The age of trading stamps, green, blue and otherwise

Sorry folks, but if you haven’t redeemed your green stamp books already, it’s too late now. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Many Leader Herald readers can still remember when, especially during the 1950s and 60s, they often found more local stores offering S&H green trading stamps than stores that didn’t. You could hardly buy gas without receiving stamps from the gas attendant’s greasy hands.

Well before any of us became consumers, these stamps were already available everywhere, and weren’t the least controversial. The spacious S&H stamp redemption center for our Fulton and Montgomery county area — one of 800 across the country — was located for many years in the North Perry Street building block just behind Palmer Pharmacy. You couldn’t walk past this building’s two large windows without having your eyes drawn to the latest, tempting display of redeemable goods, or fail to examine the latest S&H catalog that arrived in the mail. It seemed like innocent, good fun to select something to save stamps for by pasting them into those little books provided by the company. Although the undertaker was probably left out, grocers, druggists, hardware, appliance, and furniture dealers, and especially gas stations, all handed you green stamps when you made purchases, the number given depending on how much money you spent. As I write, I’m looking at someone’s almost full book of S&H green stamps, circa 1959, given me recently by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous named Joe McKoski. One wonders why whoever saved them never redeemed them.

The use of trading stamps was still very new when they burst forth upon our bi-county scene during mid 1897, as the company promoting them was founded only a year earlier by young entrepreneurs Thomas Sperry and Shelly Hutchinson of Jackson, Michigan. A large Johnstown Daily Republican advertisement of October 6th headlined “Trading Stamps,” artfully extolled the virtues of collecting trading stamps, and took three columns to do it. The lengthy ‘spiel’ concluded with a list of Johnstown merchants already signed up to offer, “Green Trading Stamps.” Who were these daring mercantile pioneers? Taken alphabetically, the list began with Abrams shoe store, Jeweler and optician George Camm, “Best Grade of Goods,” followed by Ferris & Co., milliners, “prices as low as consistent with quality,” Fuller Brothers North Perry Grocery, “Fine Butter a Specialty,” B. Galinsky, “dealer in fine clothing,” John O’Neil, “fresh and salted meats, poultry,” Timothy Keck, “dealer in dry goods,” Lighthart’s Grocery, “sole agent for Pilot Flour,” Mrs. Peck’s Millinery, “take a peep at the styles,” John Rice, “stoves and tin ware,” Richheimer & Bro. (another dry goods store), and finally C.A. Shaw, another grocer. Gas stations hadn’t arrived yet.

This large advertisement, full of inducements to patronize participating merchants, was paid for by the National Trading Stamp Association, the publicity organ of Sperry and Hutchinson.

It also noted that all trading stamps acquired in Johnstown were redeemable at the Gloversville headquarters, 38 S. Main St., “full of pretty things where trading stamps are taken in exchange.” The June 7 1902 Albany Evening Journal, which listed every Albany merchant issuing S&H stamps, reminded customers to, “Get a green book and green stamps marked S&H! Accept no other!” Sperry & Hutchinson continually dominated the field they’d pioneered, both by buying out less well-financed competitors and by leasing proprietary stamp systems to local department stores wishing to place their own name on stamps.

When I suggested these Johnstown merchants were ‘daring pioneers,’ I didn’t jest: both the issuance of trading stamps by small town merchants and their acceptance by shoppers who anticipated eventually earning ‘free’ goods, was originally a very controversial subject. Many conservative ministers, sensing a new opportunity to spew wrath, righteously attacked the system as a thinly-disguised form of usury. Local newspapers also sometimes questioned the value of the stamp craze. The February 2nd 1899 Daily Leader, for example, cryptically noted on the editorial page, “Albany merchants met Tuesday night in considerable numbers and passed resolutions endorsing the latest anti-trading stamp bill. As the Leader has steadfastly held, the trading stamp system was always a nuisance and people are fast finding it out.”

Nor were major national chains like Sears, Montgomery Wards, Woolworth’s and various trade unions happy, frequently pressuring Albany politicians to pass legislation ridding them of the stamp issue.

Contemporary newspapers carry notices of these legislative bills, none of which ever passed, perhaps because deep down, people just plain enjoyed the fun of saving and redeeming goods with stamps. On a more humorous note, the following ditty appeared in many December 1904 newspapers. Originally attached to an announcement that, “St. Johnsbury, Vermont has driven out the trading stamp after a year’s agitation,” it read:

“There’s many a grave on the hillside, where the blessed angel tramps, that is filled with deluded ladies, who collected trading stamps. Some saved for a few ‘free’ dishes, some saved for a Morris chair, some raced to the store through snowdrifts, some ran when the ground was bare. They died for “something for nothing“, they died in a strenuous game, but leaving their stamps behind them, they all died just the same.”

Thomas Sperry, co-originator of the trading stamp idea, also died young, on September 2nd, 1913, aged only forty-nine, a victim of ptomaine poisoning acquired just after returning with his family from their first European trip. Hopefully, although Sperry’s green stamp system was opposed by some, his soul was redeemed at full value when presented for redemption.

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