Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 24, 2023

Coupons and catalogs

A couple of weeks ago, I was going through my old sewing supplies to give to daughter Katie, when I came across a box I hadn't seen for years. It belonged to my Grandma Ethel Freeland and mostly contained what a person might expect - thimbles, embroidery thread and hoop, needles, and so on. But a 1930s booklet called "Premiums given for Mother's Coupons" caught my eye.

It was a small catalog advertising a myriad of products, few of which were related to sewing. There was jewelry, flatware, cameras, linens, lamps, toys, glassware, books, and much more. Nestled between the pages were United Profit-Sharing Coupons. There were 25 five-point coupons from Wrigley's Spearmint Perfect Gum and five more for Tom's Toasted Peanuts. In addition, there was a "Chancellor Liberty Certificate" and a "Mother�s Coupon." I wondered if Grandma had been interested in the Mary Stuart Pattern of Tudor Plate cutlery because the "Mother's Coupon" was tucked inside the page displaying that pattern.

I didn't think much about my find until about a week later when I came across a box with mother-in-law Donna's Oneida Community "Twin Star" cutlery. Donna had saved the 1960s Betty Crocker coupon catalog that described the set, along with a sturdy blue mailing envelope that had contained a piece.

Doing a little digging, I learned that the word coupon is French, has a financial origin and literally means "to cut off." If today I had some extra money, I might go to a bank and buy a certificate of deposit. But years ago, the bank might give me a certificate with dates and amounts along one edge. On or after the first date, I would go to the bank and cut off the first segment, and it would pay me. This would be repeated for the remaining segments. Each of those pieces came to be called coupons or cut-offs.

The earliest documented use of coupons as we know them today was by Coca-Cola. In 1888, coupons were mailed to potential customers and/or placed in magazines offering a free glass of Coke. It's estimated that between 1894 and 1913, one in nine people in the U.S. had received a free Coca-Cola, a total of 8.5 million glasses. By 1895, the campaign had helped Coke reach every state in the United States.

Coupons, whether in paper or electronic form, are still widely used in the way Coke's were. They promote the company's products by making it more attractive by reducing the price, paying for shipping, offering a trade-in, giving a free trial, etc.

Most of these coupons are intended to prod a potential buyer into trying the product. But others are loyalty-based - designed to encourage a current customer to be a repeat buyer. My grandma's United Profit-Sharing Corporation coupons were of that type. The company was based in New York City and operated from the 1920s to the 1950s. A product supplier - such as Wrigley's gum or Tom's peanuts - included the coupons with their products. When a customer had acquired enough coupons or coupon points, they were sent to a redemption center and exchanged for the chosen premium. The item was typically of a completely different nature than the product purchased. Donna buying Betty Crocker food items so she could redeem the coupons for cutlery is an example. It was these installment coupon programs that intrigued me most as they are now uncommon.

Grandma's "Mother's Coupons" booklet are another example. A person collected coupons from various "Mother's" products - Quick Mother's Oats, Mother's Crushed Oats, Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour, and others. Once enough had been collected, they were mailed in, sometimes with a few coins, to buy whatever catalog item they wanted.

The Tudor Plate required 20 "Mother's Coupons" or two coupons and 15 cents to get a teaspoon, 35 coupons or four coupons and 30 cents to get a fork, and so on.

Donna could acquire coupons from Betty Crocker cake mixes, Bisquick, Wondra Gold Medal flour, and several General Mills cereals, including Wheaties, Lucky Charms, Cheerios and Trix. The price of a dinner fork was three coupons and 50 cents or 70 coupons and 15 cents. Teaspoons, knives, salad forks, gravy ladles and other items all had cash-plus-coupon prices in her "Twin Star" set. Husband Art no longer recalls what coupons were involved, but knows Donna used them to obtain a card table.

He also recalls a filling station in his hometown that had a simplified version of this customer-retention scheme. Every gallon of fuel purchased earned a point. There were cabinets with �premiums,� such as drink glasses or toilet paper, that could be purchased with the points.

The "Box Tops for Education" campaign that is promoted by cereal companies is a modern-day loyalty program. When our daughters were in grade school, Art and I, Donna, and Art's brother Tommy collected box tops, which were then sent in to provide money for playground equipment and other items. Today, customers can download a smartphone app that allows them to scan their receipts when they buy products from participating companies and then designate the recipient school. The money can go to purchase gym equipment, art supplies, scholarships for teachers, and other educational purposes. The program has been around for more than 25 years and has generated almost $1 billion for schools.

While using coupons to promote immediate sales is still very popular, installment-buying with coupons seems a bit quaint today. But in the early part of the 20th century, if a family had a car, the husband probably used it to go to work. There was also a high likelihood he controlled the money as well. So being able to "buy" things and have them shipped directly to her home would have been quite appealing for the average housewife.

Knowing how thrifty Donna was, I was surprised she bought a set of silverware for eight people. And I was a little surprised she kept it in a box in an upstairs closet rather than using it. But she wasn't any different from most other women, who stored their "good" or "special" dishes, glassware, silverware, and linens, bringing them out only when company came.

In retrospect, I guess it wasn't a bad investment. Art and I decided we like it better than what we had been using and so are now enjoying Donna's set every day. Her frugal coupon-collecting side would have been so pleased.

Left (top-bottom) United Profit-Sharing coupon issued by Tom's Roasted Peanuts; another UPS coupon, but issued by Wrigley Spearmint Gum; 1888 Coca Cola coupon giving the bearer a free glass of the product; a Box Tops For Education coupon from our box of Cheerios cereal. Middle-left: top is the catalog picture (left) for the Twin Star spoon and a spoon from Donna's set; bottom is the card table, albeit a bit the worse for wear, Art's family acquired with coupons. Middle-right: Betty Crocker catalog (top) with the Twin Star flatware and Mother's premiums catalog. Right: an ice bucket and a mayonnaise bowl premium from the Mother's catalog.

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