The Threat to Ypsi’s Local Economy in 1906 (Not Globalization)

July 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

flobertCheap goods shipped from distant places hurt the local economy. It’s better—no, vital—to shop locally. It’s also a waste of money to buy a cheap but inferior product from afar when a better, if more expensive local one will last longer.

These were the themes of a talk given at an Ypsilanti business association. The themes sound familiar in a globalized Internet age that offers the choice of whether to buy goods made elsewhere or online, or patronize an Ypsilanti store. “Buy Local” is now a familiar idea.

But it isn’t new. The talk at the business meeting occurred not in 2010 but in 1906. The goods from afar undercutting the local economy weren’t from distant countries or the Internet.

“Last night’s meeting of the Ypsilanti Business Men’s Association in Cleary College reading room was a fine one and the turn out of citizens was magnificent,” said the March 2, 1906 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “The singing of the Pease men’s quartet was a revelation to those that had never heard them and they were heartily cheered by their delighted hearers. The talk given by [downtown clothing store co-owner] Mr. Horner was one that should have been heard by every person in Washtenaw County . . .”

Fred Horner went on to discuss the decline of downtown trade from the farmers around Ypsilanti. “That the rural trade of merchants of Ypsilanti is not what it should be is evident from the fact that the question has been asked, ‘what is the cause of the decline?’”

Horner attributed the decrease in large part to mail order companies. “They scatter their catalogues promiscuously throughout the country quoting prices (that to the customer seem great bargains) and reap a harvest in return, when the same quality could be bought at home for the same, or less, and the freight or express saved, and have the satisfaction of having kept the money at home. It seems like poor policy for any person that has any interest in the welfare of his home market to send abroad for his supplies, even though he could save a few dollars in his yearly purchases . . .”

Most of the large mail order houses, or “catalogue houses,” were in Chicago. Sears, Roebuck & Company with its iconic catalogue dominated them all. Sears is likely the “large catalogue house in Chicago” to which a February 19, 1906 Ypsilanti Daily Press editorial refers.

“The pure food commission of Minnesota recently issued a bulletin disclosing the names of concerns which have shipped adulterated foods into that state,” said the paper. “In this list the name of a large catalogue house in Chicago appears four or five times. The report, which is a scathing denunciation of manufacturers and dealers selling impure foods, shows that catalogue houses sell goods that are not only inferior, but a menace to health, if not life itself.”

The paper continued, “The commissioners declare, and their report is based upon an analysis of samples purchased, that the house referred to sells evaporated milk labeled evaporated cream; wild cherry phosphate colored with coal tar dye; cheese containing borax, and stuff which it advertises as pure fruit jelly, but is a glucose compound artificially colored and flavored. Thus is the secret of the low prices of catalogue houses exposed. They buy inferior goods because they can buy them at a low price, but they advertise them as the best on the market.”

“The agricultural implements offered by catalogue houses never bear the names and brands that are known to the trade, unless there is a deliberate steal of a name or brand, as sometimes occurs. The machines are made from obsolete patterns, hurriedly constructed out of inferior material.” Agricultural implements were manufactured and sold in the city by, among others, O. E. Thompson in the former Thompson Block. The paper continued, “The same thing is true of buggies and carriages.” In years past, the Beach Carriage Company had produced carriages in Ypsilanti.

The article concluded, “The catalogue houses buy these goods at low prices. Why shouldn’t they? But they sell them at high prices, considering their value. When a concern has been convicted of selling inferior and impure foods intelligent buyers should be suspicious of its other lines.”

Or at least some of its lines. The 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue has an extensive gun section, featuring rifles bearing the storied names of Winchester and Remington that evoke the romance of the Old West.

It also carried the Flobert.

In all caps, the catalog’s blurb for the gun reads “WE DO NOT RECOMMEND NOR GUARANTEE FLOBERT RIFLES. Buy a good rifle. It will pay in the end . . . We think No. 6R665 [elsewhere on the page] is the best value for the money.”

A genuine Remington rifle on the next page sold for $7.50 [$184 today]. The Flobert went for $1.60 [$39].

Although they carried some iffy products, the catalogue houses also employed many craftsmen in producing worthwhile goods, as noted by one editorial written by a Midwest merchant in the February 23, 1901 Sanitary and Heating Age trade magazine.

“Now, 60 miles east of me is a small stove foundry,” said the writer. “They make a good cheap cook stove. A Chicago house takes their entire output. Can any one, or any association, by entreaty or legislation, or by ‘Influence and wisdom,’ stop this leak for the legitimate dealer? We cannot influence our home customer with the plea that the catalogue houses are putting out ‘shyster’ goods, for they are not. The stove I speak of is a good one, and offered cheaper than I can sell it.”

Despite this assertion, the reputation of catalogue houses was so poor that the 1902 Sears catalogue, in its introduction, said that it would ship goods in unmarked packaging. Merchants reselling the goods would not be stigmatized. “As some of our customers, especially townspeople and business houses, request us to ship our goods in plain packages or boxes, leaving off our name and address, so that no one will know what they have bought or where the goods come from, we have decided to make the transaction strictly confidential.”

Town merchants had demanded the anonymity, but it was likely also a blessing for Sears–at least when shipping out Floberts.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time Ypsi story to share? Contact her at [email protected]


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