Remembering Trading Stamps

Sunday, October 30, 2005 - by Harmon Jolley
Former M&J Supermarket and S&H Green Stamp redemption center on South Broad Street.  Click to enlarge.
Former M&J Supermarket and S&H Green Stamp redemption center on South Broad Street. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Harmon Jolley

Want to build customer loyalty? Just offer the people who buy your products a little something extra, and make them think that they’re getting it for free.

If you’re a grocer, run a “buy one bag of potato chips, get one free” advertisement. If you make salad dressing, pump another two ounces into each bottle. If you’re a restaurateur, offer a frequent-diner card. Promotions like those have been around for a long time. One extra has all but disappeared, but back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, business owners and customers were all stuck on trading stamps.

The trading stamp cycle began with the issuance of the stamps in various denominations, a dispenser, and savings booklets to merchants at a low cost. Customers responded to the advertisements from merchants which proclaimed that they offered free trading stamps. Customers then saved the stamps in booklets, being able to fill a page with a single stamp if its denomination was high enough.

Shoppers always kept a catalog nearby of the premiums they could earn by accumulating stamps. Towels, toys, sporting goods, glassware, bath scales, and small kitchen appliances were among the rewards which allowed families to feel like that they were splurging a bit. Regarding the bath scales, they were the old mechanical kind with a rotating dial and needle which indicated weight. They were so much more accurate than today’s digital scales, which overstate most everyone’s weight (well, it’s my theory, anyway).

Moistening the stamps with a small, slightly damp sponge was a good way to avoid a gluey aftertaste if one was affixing a mass quantity of stamps. My mother used that technique long before Martha Stewart came along with similar efficiency ideas. Children could usually be enlisted to help in pasting the stamps, especially if they had their eyes on a certain catalog item.

Trading stamps had been offered for many years by various companies. In 1896, Michigan silverware salesman Thomas A. Sperry teamed with financier Shelly B. Hutchinson to issue its first S&H Green Stamps. The first S&H redemption center was located at Bridgeport, Connecticut.

S&H always had competitors, with a chief rival being Carlson Companies. In 1938, Curt Carlson of Minnesota began offering Gold Bond Stamps, later adding the Top Value Brand. The federal government used a somewhat similar approach with its savings stamp program. It was originally used to fund World War II and later, to encourage thrift among school children. The stamps could be accumulated towards a Series E savings bond. I recall that my elementary school participated in the program.

By 1955, the sound of S&H Green Stamps being torn along their perforations resounded throughout Chattanooga’s stores. S&H operated a redemption center at 1816 East Main. The locally-based M&J (Mulkey and Jackson) supermarket chain offered S&H Green Stamps, appropriate since the M&J’s logo was green. Typical of S&H stamp promotions, a December, 1960 advertisement for the M&J offered 1200 green stamps, which was enough to fill a savings booklet.

When the construction of the freeway displaced the South Broad M&J from its location next to Crombie’s Funeral Home, both the M&J and the S&H Stamp Redemption Center moved to a new building on Glenview Street off South Broad. This building is now the home of the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. In 1966, S&H moved to its own new building at 1089 Bailey Avenue, across from the National Cemetery. Today, this building, which was once crowned by a large S&H sign, is the home of the IPSCO insurance agency.

Top Value and Gold Bond stamps were in the Chattanooga market by 1960. At that time, Top Value operated a redemption center at 3758 Ringgold Road, in the Osborne center. Gold Bond distributed its premiums at a store at 1819 Dodds Avenue. The Kroger grocery stores offered Top Value, and frequently gave extra stamps in exchange for purchase of a certain item. I believe that the Colonial grocery stores distributed the Gold Bond stamps.

A survey completed in the mid-1960’s showed that eighty-four per cent of households saved trading stamps. The vendors were printing more trading stamps than the U.S. Post Office was printing stamps for mailing. Top Value had two redemption centers in Chattanooga in 1970, one at 5801 Brainerd Road and the other at 3903 Hixson Pike. The end of the coiled, perforated roll of stamps was nearing, however.

Some of the large grocery chains began to advertise that they were eliminating trading stamps in favor of lower prices. This was just the first blow. The next occurred with the 1973 oil embargo, and ensuing shortages of gasoline. I recall that immediately prior to the embargo, area gas stations were offering trading stamps and a free loaf of bread (which also skyrocketed in price following the embargo) or 2-liter soft drink with a fill-up at 19.9 cents a gallon. When gasoline was suddenly in short supply, dealers had little reason to offer trading stamps.

As of 1980, only S&H continued to operate a redemption center in Chattanooga. It, too, left the market by 1990. However, both S&H and Carlson Companies, the originator of the Top Value and Gold Bond stamps, are still around but in new forms. S&H Greenpoints are offered as electronic discounts by various merchants. Carlson Companies owns a number of businesses in the hospitality market, including the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant chain. Carslon offers discounts through its Gold Points Rewards Network.

The Savings stamps concept is thus still around in this digital age. Chances are, if you’re asked to show your drivers’ license, you can find one of your many retailer electronic discount cards sooner than you find your license!

If you have memories of any of the trading stamps mentioned in this article, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


Save enough stamps, and you could get a nifty cuckoo clock.  Click to enlarge.
Save enough stamps, and you could get a nifty cuckoo clock. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Harmon Jolley

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