Betty Beeby’s drawers

Posted on June 16, 2010


Betty Beeby says everyone in her family is a packrat.  She found hundreds of old letters and postcards in her father’s barn and made them into a wonderful book called Breath Escaping Envelopes.  Then she donated the collection to Western Michigan University, where it is archived for researchers.   

However, many odds and ends and wonderful surprises never made it into the WMU archives, and the other day Betty allowed me to scan some of these for my assorted projects.  I brought home a drawer full of postcards and advertisements and greeting cards, and learned more than I expected about life in the 1880s and 90s.  I guess all you have to do is ask the people who were there, and hardly anyone was more there than Norton Pearl.

Here, for example, we have a Soap Opera, vintage 1883 or so.

With admirable economy, it tells the entire story of a marriage in six words. 

Like all good soap operas, it is a morality tale, and its purpose is to sell products.  J.D. Larkin & Co. inserted that souvenir picture card in boxes of its Sweet Home laundry soap as a little thank-you present to its customers.  But the marketing genius at Larkin, one Elbert Hubbard, had a larger vision.  From picture cards to handkerchiefs, to towels—by the 1890s Larkin was offering premiums like pottery dishes and furniture with the purchase of soap!  Can you imagine that?  OK, you had to buy a whole year’s supply, but you got a dandy desk with your order!  

Larkin and Hubbard had an interesting idea.  More and more useful objects were being mass-produced, bringing costs down.  Mail service and transportation networks were expanding in every direction.  Why not sell directly to the consumer?  Larkin Co. became an early developer of the catalog business, a competitor to Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Cut out the middleman entirely, and deliver goods to the household–or at least to the nearest railroad siding.  And that is how Eastport, and Torch Lake, and all the other little towns in the woodsy north country, began to build middle-class lifestyles.

You start out by wondering about a thing like that, and then an advertising insert in laundry soap leads you to very interesting answers. Did you ever think I’d give you a link to Harvard Business School’s Business History Review? Well, there’s a first time for everything: From Factory to Family: The Creation of a Corporate Culture in the Larkin Company of Buffalo, New York. I commend the excerpt to your attention.

I have one more treasure to show you from Betty’s drawer.  This is a little diecut booklet advertising the Webster’s International Dictionary and Reference History of the World.

Inside there are samplings of the Dictionary of the English Language, Dictionaries of Geography, Biography, Foreign Place Names . . . and best of all, Unexpected Riches.

One is often more thankful for a trifle that comes to him unlooked for than for the ordinary mercies of life. So in using the dictionary the surprising is the gratifying.

I believe I might adopt that as the motto of Torch Lake Views.