The Right Stuff: Remembering Tom Foster

By Ray Schultz

When asked how he was doing on March 19, 1996, Tom Foster answered, “Well, I’m still here.”

The comment had double meaning. Foster & Gallagher, his $350 million catalog company, was indeed alive at a time when Spencer Gifts and other mail order houses started in the years after World War II had long since gone out of business.

On the personal side, the remark was typical of his sense of humor, for Foster was nearing the end of a battle with cancer. When he died that July, at age 66, the world lost one of the last of the mail order legends—the self-made people who started small and built themselves up through grit, street-smarts and not a little luck.

Foster grew up in Peoria, IL, where his grandfather had owned a drugstore dating back to 1900. Expected to help out, he often went along on buying trips to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, gaining “a slight understanding of the Chicago wholesale marketplace.”

That understanding was to serve him well after he was kicked out of the University of Arizona for failure to attend class. (He later received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bradley University in Peoria.) Determined to prove himself and make it up to his family, he started a small mail order business in 1949 at age 20.

Why mail order? Foster had seen an article in Collier’s magazine on mail order start-ups like Green Gables Gifts, the brainchild of returning World War II vet Alex Green. “I’ll never forget it—there was a picture of a U.S. postal bag dumping mail out on a table,” Foster said.

Another source of inspiration was the mail order ad section in the back of Esquire (which Foster regularly bought so he could look at the Vargas girls). “They’d advertise things I had seen in the wholesale market in Chicago,” he said.

So Foster started not with a catalog, but with a tiny ad in Esquire in September 1949. The product: A four-inch, “bronze-looking” golf bag made in Providence, the center of manufacture for cheap jewelry and metal castings. “When you pressed on the putter, the top flipped back, and it was a cigarette lighter.” It sold, and that fall Foster earned $2,000 in profits on $12,000 in sales.

That was just the beginning. Soon, he was offering a variety of gifts and tcotchkes in various national magazines, all chosen in the belief that “you better get a goddamned product people will want to buy that you can make a buck on or you won’t stay in business.”

Despite his lack of formal training in mail order, Foster had an instinctive feel for what to do. He put his mailing list on the market in 1951, using Ed Proctor of Guild Co., though he never came to depend on the revenue.

He also took measures to protect and develop the business. In 1951, realizing that he would probably be drafted for the military, he formed a partnership with Helen Gallagher, a former department store buyer who owned a gift shop in Peoria. Gallagher and her husband Frank, both in their mid-40s at the time, ran the business while Foster did a two-year hitch in the Air Force.

The great years began upon his return in 1954. The first success was Naughty Angels, a set of ceramic cherubs in see-no-evil, hear-no-evil poses. Foster found the product, made in Japan, Helen named it, and within 18 months, they sold 250,000 sets at $1.50 apiece.

They did $1 million in sales for the first time that year. They also mailed their first catalog—“four-color on one side of the press, black-and-white and maybe two-color on the other side.” The economics were right. “When I started, the postage rate was $10 per thousand,” Foster explained. “The next year, it went up to $15. We always thought of a catalog as costing a nickel, including the paper, ink, postage and the list.”

A year later, they made the first of several acquisitions—the now-bankrupt Green Gable Gifts, which had been featured in Colliers.

There followed several very successful years, and in 1965 they sold to Stanley Home Products. Gallagher retired, but Foster repurchased the business and in 1972 made his most important acquisition—bulb cataloger Breck’s.

This marked the start of a strategic shift. Though Foster & Gallagher was doing $80 million a year in gift sales by 1980, Foster repositioned it and eventually bought at least 10 horticultural catalogs, including spring Hill Nurseries, Stark Bros. and Michigan bulb, often getting “the real estate that went with it so that we grew the product.”

Why change? Foster saw earlier than most gift catalogers that prices and lead times were being jacked up for foreign merchandise, and that the business was becoming untenable. He also turned Foster & Gallagher into an employee-owned company.

When we talked that March, Foster was full of recollections of the business and the people in it, including Lillian Vernon, one of the few people still in business (“A good friend, and without peer) and Ed Proctor (Talk about green eyeshades and arm garters– there were old wooden filing cases and bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling”).

Then there were the competitors who didn’t make it—“people who used up their inheritance on their kitchen table and then it was over with.”

Had Foster made any mistakes?

“Life is filled with mistakes,” he said. “but we live on the law of averages. You can live on 49%.”

Time Was

By Ray Schultz

Time Inc, not even two years old and decades away from algorithms, sent personalized direct mail letters to businessmen in the 1920s. Take this piece identified in the files only as “before 25.” It went to Alexander Jones, of Market Street, Philadelphia. Since Time magazine debuted in 1923, that gives you some idea of the timeframe.

The letterhead says “Time,” and lists the address as East Thirty-ninth Street New York.” Here’s the direct mail letter:

 Dear Mr. Jones:

 Because TIME is particularly a magazine for people how are not “magazine readers”; for people who have little time to take up with new fads; it seemed to the publishers of TIME that the usual methods of subscription solicitation by mail and advertisements would not bring the new-magazine to the attention of those for whom it was primarily intended—the busy man and woman of affairs.

The publishers, therefore, asked a leading citizen and TIME subscriber in several large cities the great favor of suggesting the names of persons in his city to whom he thought the news-magazine would be of interest. Mr. Edward M. Bok in Philadelphia, Mr. William Allen White in Kansas, Mr. Robert Underwood Johnson in New York, Mr. Bernard M. Baruch, Mr. Otto Bannard were kind enough to give us the names of such people in their respective communities. The judgment of these men in this instance has been most effectively upheld.

The specimen issues of TIME sent to the busy persons whom they suggested have resulted in almost 100% enthusiastic subscribers—an unparalleled response. It is with a feeling of confidence that we have sent you the several issues of TIME. Whether or not you are in a position at the moment to enter a subscription we trust that TIME has afforded you as much pleasure in reading as we have had in sending them to you.

The enclosed card bears your name and address and requires only your signature to bring TIME for the next year. If you will return it promptly we shall take care to see that there is o gap in the delivery of your copies. The card is stamped ready for mailing. It will be a great pleasure to consider you as a subscriber.

Cordially yours,

 Briton Hadden



Alexander Jones Esq.,

Market Street,

Philadelphia, Pa.


DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 12: Montgomery Ward Raises the Barn

By Ray Schultz

Of all of our myths, none is more cherished than the one that life was wonderful for settlers on the Great Plains. They had land, thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862, and that’s all they needed (that and pianos for sing-alongs).

But it wasn’t so. Some lived in hovels, not in the Victorian homes we envision. The conditions were harsh, the weather terrifying. Worse, the farmers had little human contact. Some had hallucinations, others committed suicide. This was powerfully captured by Willa Cather in My Antonia. “I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda,” the narrator writes. His exhausted spirit was “tired of cold and crowding and the struggle with the ever-falling snow.”

But what of those who did survive? They worked their farms. And when they needed seeds, tools, clothes or even coffee, they went miles to general stores which also served as post offices. And there they were gouged.

In 1872, 40 Midwestern farmers received what probably was the first piece of direct mail they’d ever seen. If the store owners had any idea what it was, they may not have handed it over—it threatened their interests. Not that there was any secret about it: It was headlined: “Grangers supplied by the Cheapest Cash House in America.”

“At the Earnest Solicitation of Many Granges we have consented to open a House devoted to furnishing Farmers and Mechanics throughout the Northwest with all kinds of Merchandise at Wholesale prices. Few indeed realize the extent to which the cost of living in this country is increased by the expense incidental to the distribution of goods under the older methods in vogue.” Attached was a price sheet, listing various staples.

The farmers could be forgiven for thinking it was too good to be true. But it was on the level. The letter had been sent from Chicago by a 39 year-old entrepreneur named Aaron Montgomery Ward. And whatever it lacked in style, it made up in sincerity. Ward was one of the first consumerists. He wanted to help the farmer (and, of course, make a small profit for himself).

Born in New Jersey in 1843, Ward grew up in Michigan, worked in factories and a general store, then held a series of sales jobs. At age 22, he was hired by the Marshall Fields department store in Chicago. Fields had a lucrative side business, selling merchandise wholesale to general stores by mail. Ward was handed this plum, and he came to know farmers and how badly they were robbed by almost everyone they did business with.

Ward had an epiphany: he envisioned a department store by mail. He bought some wholesale merchandise, lost it in the Chicago Fire of 1871, then started over. Scoffers ridiculed him for thinking that products could be sold sight unseen, and that women in particular would forego “the pleasurable excitement of shopping.”

But Ward knew better, and he had an advantage that even Marshal Fields lacked: He had the National Grange, the farmer’s organization, in his pocket. The Grange let him use its name and membership list, and Ward got himself appointed as purchasing agent for the Illinois Grange, which enabled him to get better prices for himself.

Of course, the Grange connection gave Ward something just as precious: access to the farmers. Attending their monthly meetings, Grangers were likely to find that the entertainment of the evening was a mustachioed figure—Ward himself. He assured the farmers that the pictures and words in his catalog were accurate; to prove it, he displayed the goods. There was one more thing: he gave a money-back guarantee.

In two years, Ward moved from a single sheet to a 32-page catalog that offered “notions, hose and gloves, hat trimmings, toilet goods, letter paper, needles, cutlery, jewelry and watches, fans and parasols, stereoscopes and albums, trunks and traveling bags, harness, Grange regalia, goods, clothing, hats and caps, boots and shoes,” according to Ward Catalogue No. 11, from 1874. And in time, he published his “big” books, omnibus catalogs that carried everything from underwear to stoves.

As time went on, Ward mailed also almanacs and tiny pocket catalogs, like one titled “4 Ways to get a copy of Montgomery Ward & Co’s Big Catalogue No. 73,” circa 1904. This was a form of prospecting: It was too expensive to mail the big book to non-customers or people who had not showed an interest.

“The average farmer feels like spending when, after he has sold his stock or grain and paid up his taxes, he finds a good fat roll still in his pockets,” Ward wrote. “If the mail order man’s literature is on the spot at the time, ten to one he will reap the benefit.”

Some operators encouraged the farmers themselves to try their hand at starting a mail order business. They offered products that a person might sell from his kitchen table—books like, “Why God Lets the Devil Exist.”

By 1888, Ward had a rival for the title of the farmer’s savior: Richard Sears. But Sears didn’t see himself as anyone’s savior. He was a hustler, one in a line. His father James had gone to California for the Gold rush of 1849, and came back broke. Sears went to work at 16 to help support his family, and eventually became a station manager for the Minneapolis St. Louis Railroad. He came upon a carton of watches refused by a local jewelry store, and sold them for a $2 markup to agents along the line. And he went on from there.

There was one major difference between Ward and Sears. Ward built his business with “missionary fervor and a deep desire to help each customer. Sears did it as an opportunist—for money, excitement and the joy of selling,” wrote the renowned mail order historian Cecil Hoge.

And yet, “as the firm grew, Sears made a special effort to keep the personal touch,” Daniel J. Boorstin wrote. “For some time, even after the typewriter had come into general use, letters sent out by the company were handwritten out of respect for the feelings of the farm clientele who were sometimes offended to receive a letter that was ‘machine-made.’”

Sears sent personal letters, like this one to J.W. Bull, of West Virginia, on March 24, 1894:

Dear Sir:

About three weeks ago we sent out a special offer, offering as a present a $100.00 organ to the first one to order our $5.95 watch, and a $50.00 gold filled watch, as a present, to the first order received from each state. Up to the present time we have received no order from your state, so we write you confidentially under two cent stamp. If you will fill out the enclosed order blank immediately and send to us, with $5.95 for watch described, we will see that you get “at least” a very nice present at once.

As for Ward, he was not only a consumerist, he was an environmentalist. In 1890, he sued the city of Chicago for allowing its lakefront to be defiled with scaffolding and garbage.

Did the Ward and Sears catalogs really change the way people shopped? Oh, yes: the Main St. general stores were driven out of business, and the owners hated the men who had done this to them. O.E. McIntyre later joked, “I’m working for Sears, but don’t tell my mom—she thinks I’m playing piano in a call house.”

Chapter 13: The Confederate Croupiers

Hooray for Hollywood

By Ray Schultz

What will advanced civilizations think when they stumble upon this artifact 200 years from now: A 1959 or 1960 catalog from Frederick’s of Hollywood?

It has all the items you’d expect from Frederick’s, from padded bras to waist cinchers. But it also offers dresses, shoes, pants, vitamins, beauty aids, a portable gym and playing cards.

You won’t find fashions by Dior or Balenciaga here. The whole idea is to make 1950s housewives look like the reigning Hollywood sex goddesses: Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. For those who can’t or won’t go that route, there are loose, concealing garments.

The cover says it all: “Now Showing from Frederic’s of Hollywood starring You!” And it emphasizes the Hollywood setting: “Frederic’s Glamorous new address: at 6608 Hollywood Blvd.”

For all the talk of glamour, the catalog is hardly glossy. The inside pages are on newsprint, and they’re black and white. The color cover is on slightly heavier stock.

The order tells us a lot about how mail order operated in those days. There’s no mention of credit cards. The only payment options offered are:

PREPAID, I enclosed $______________

*If your entire order is under $10.00, enclosed only 50 cents to cover postage and handling.

*If your order is OVER $10.00 enclosed postage and handling fee separately for each item, in the following amount: Bras, Girdles and Panties – 40 cents each, All other items – 50 cents each.

Revolving Credit Club. I enclose $___________the amount I have selected as my monthly membership payment. (See chart on page 33 and fill out form.) California credit customers please use special application form available on request

C.O.D.* I enclose $2 on each item and will pay postman the balance. No C.O.D. orders shipped without deposit.

*C.O.D. orders over $20.00 and less than $50.00 require $5.00 deposit.

*C.O.D. orders over $50.00 require $10.00 deposit.

*No C.O.D. orders shipped to General Delivery addresses.

*C.O.D. orders accepted only within continental U.S.A.

Body Armor

By Ray Schultz

This week’s historical piece addresses a delicate subject: corsets. Or, rather, corsets and content.

In 1929, Charis of St. Paul sent a brochure for its “superior foundation garment.” The fold-out piece featured spot color, and photos of women wearing the patented corset (although it never used that term).

The only response mechanism is a St. Paul address and phone number, so this was obviously a local effort. The garment couldn’t be bought in a store, or ordered by mail—instead, it was delivered in person by a Charis representative.

Here’s how content was done 87 years ago. The cover asks the question, “What has become of the middle-aged woman?” And the copy on the flip page answers the question:

What has become of the Middle-aged” Woman?

The pathetic, “middle-aged” woman of yesterday is the mature, young woman of today. Instead of a drab, monotonous existence, she leads a useful, interesting life.

For the active, smartly dressed, modern woman, whose figure has matured with her years, CHARIS is a superior foundation garment from every point of view.

To begin with , CHARIS is adjustable, so that the wearer as she puts it on, can improve her figure wherever desired. Ungraceful development of waist, hips or thighs can be corrected, the abdomen flattened—creating smart youthful lines from bust to knees. This re-proportioning of the figure is accomplished without any restriction of movement. The garment can be worn continuously with perfect comfort.

CHARIS is light in weight and contains a minimum of boning, yet it provides exactly the physical support most mature women need. An important feature is the Inner Belt, which supports the abdomen in correct position, affording protection against strain and depleted vitality.

CHARIS is a patented garment. The advantages of its adjustable feature cannot be secured elsewhere.

You can examine CHARIS in the private of your home whenever convenient. This superior garment is not sold in stores but will be brought directly to you by a representative of this company. To secure further information, including free demonstration if desired, please communicate with the address on the back of this leaflet.

The following pages contain full-page photos of variations, with descriptions:

Observe how CHARIS controls and reproportions the well developed figure, without restriction of movement. In addition to producing attractive, youthful lines CHARIS permits perfect physical relaxation with comfort in any position. Continued use of CHARIS will usually effect a permanent reduction in bust and hip measurements.

For the women of average figure, the garment illustrated below is a particularly desirable model. It is made with the convenient Midway Opening (midway between center front and underarm). Notice the smooth, youthful contour and this garment creates. This and other models can be had with cool net or rayon top for summer.

The unique adjustability and complete superior of CHARIS make it a desirable garment for every woman—slender or stout. There are odd and even sizes, 32 to 56 bust. Detachable shoulder straps are a great convenience. The garment launders beautifully and gives long services. A wide selection of models and materials is provided.

The rear cover shows a fully dressed woman (presumably Mrs. Charis, if there was one), and asks the question: “Will you let her help YOU, too?”

At the risk of seeming lurid, there was one curious historical detail: The garments featured clips for holding up stockings, which were worn in each of the photos.