I’ll admit it — I’ve bought a fair amount of products online. It’s easy, usually less expensive, tax-free, and delivered straight to my door. But over this past year I’ve also watched as one favorite store after another closed. It’s not hard to see cause-and-effect in action.
So in order to fully appreciate our retail past, I started a new collection — historic catalogs. My own retail heritage goes back to the Oxlip Mercantile in Isanti County where my great grandfather worked in the early 1900s. He ordered wholesale merchandise from Butler Brothers and Janney, Semple, Hill & Co. — both located in giant buildings in Downtown Minneapolis. Others were there too, like M. W. Savage, and implement dealers Lindsay Brothers, International Harvester, and Deere and Webber (later John Deere Company). St. Paul had Farwell, Ozmun, Kirk & Co. in two big buildings anchoring Lowertown. I’m sure there’s many more, but that’s the collection so far.
I found my first catalog in an Anoka antique shop. It’s five inches thick with a richly embossed gold cover. Other than a couple creases in the spine, the 1930 catalog is in perfect condition. Bible-thin pages are printed with black and white wood engravings of everything from pocket watches, coffee grinders, fishing lures, trumpets, rifles, saws, wagon wheels, 1000-foot car headlamp with cord, shoes, dresses, newsboy caps, and wood stoves. Another catalog was found in a thrift store way north, in Crookston. It smelled like it’d been stored in a barn since first issued in 1923. I aired it out on my deck all summer. When I could finally breath near it, I discovered pages filled with sewing supplies, furniture, union suits, rotary lawn mowers, and full-page color inserts with beautiful linoleum “rug” patterns.
These wholesalers and mail-order companies thrived from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. These mammoth warehouses took up two to four city blocks. Janney, Semple, Hill was known as the largest hardware dealer in the northwest; Lindsay Brothers was the largest independent farm implement wholesaler in the country. These businesses stocked small rural stores and mailed catalogs throughout the midwest. Like the nationally-known Sears catalogs, they were not only functional for shopping, but entertaining and educational as well. People learned about trends, new technology, and the latest fashions all between the pages.
But changes in transportation, shipping, and peoples’ buying preferences eventually dismantled the industry. The buildings that were saved are now filled with offices, restaurants, and lofts in the Warehouse District and St. Paul’s Lowertown. We never know what’s in store for our future — especially with talk about airborne drones delivering products to our doorsteps a half-hour after ordering! So the next time I’m about to hit “place order” I’m going to consider my options.
LUNCH BREAK: Wild and inventive sandwiches at Be’Wiched, a chef-driven deli, 800 Washington Ave. (note deer heads by building entrance doors from Deere and Weber warehouse)
For building addresses, write to WeekendTourist@mnpubs.com.