Most baby boomers will remember helping their parents lick and stick business stamps into booklets when they were young. These stamps were given away by grocery stores, gas stations, and other businesses when purchasing items.
The filled stamp books could then be redeemed for items from the stamp company’s catalog or redemption stores. Trade stamps were useful for retailers or merchants to build customer loyalty.
The stamps themselves were only worth a fraction of a penny, but enough of them could be exchanged for important items. I recently found the first item I received with stamps I collected in 1968. It was a variable speed electric drill that I haven’t used in 30 years because a battery operated drill no longer practice replaced it.
The first use of trade stamps in the United States dates back to 1891, when a department store in Wisconsin offered trade stamps to customers who made cash purchases. The practice was well received and began to spread. Some retailers only allowed their stamps to be exchanged for products made or distributed only by their own company or in their own stores.
Some of these stores for furniture, appliances or other large items were setting up showrooms to promote stamps and cashback. Soon, independent companies entered the business and would sell the stamps to merchants, allowing the companies to offer a variety of items for redemption beyond merchant merchandise.
Unnamed trade stamps were offered in the Berkshires as early as November 1897 by a number of companies in Pittsfield, Dalton and North Adams. One of the first stamp companies gave away 50 free stamps with a booklet to entice people to use them. At first, many Massachusetts merchants felt pressured and threatened by some of the trading stamp companies and lobbied for state regulations.
Perhaps the best-known baby boomer trading stamp company was Sperry and Hutchinson (S&H) who established S&H Green Stamps beginning in 1896. S&H opened their business on Bank Row in Pittsfield on November 25, 1903, promoting his stamps by announcing that participating merchants would donate one stamp for every 10 cents spent in their business.
Merchants bought the stamps in coils or blocks for a tenth of a cent each. Thus, it would cost the company a penny for every dollar spent in its store. To kick off its opening, S&H offered women $1 worth of free stamps.
The business was very successful and moved first to Eagle Street and then to North Street as early as 1913. After many different locations on North Street, the business moved its redemption store in the 1960s to Pittsfield Plaza on West Housatonic Street, where there was more space and convenient parking for guests.
Prior to the establishment of exchange centers, S&H produced catalogs that consumers could use to exchange their stamp books and order items pictured or described. Other companies followed suit and by the mid to late 1950s there were over 200 commercial stamp companies in the United States, with over a quarter of a million companies giving them purchases.
It was estimated that by the end of the 1950s, two-thirds of households nationwide collected commercial stamps, with grocery stores and gas stations being two of the biggest promoters of stamps. During the 1960s, S&H boasted that its awards catalog was the largest publication in the United States, and that the company issued three times as many stamps as the U.S. Postal Service.
S&H Green Stamps had an interesting connection to Berkshire. The company’s original founder was Thomas Sperry. Sperry’s niece, Carrie, and her husband, Frederick “Fritz” Beinecke Sr., were longtime summer residents of Great Barrington from the 1940s through the 1970s. In 1923, Fritz and his two brothers purchased the company S & H, and he became its vice-president in 1927 and president in 1952.
Fritz and Carrie became major benefactors of many Berkshire organizations such as Hancock Shaker Village, the Berkshire Garden Center, Fairview Hospital, and the Berkshire Art Association. They were the major donors to the restoration of the 1968 round barn at Shaker Village with a $500,000 donation.
There were several other popular trade stamps offered by Berkshire County businesses. Most large grocers gave out double and triple stamps for purchases, usually on Wednesdays.
These included MacDonald Plaid stamps and Gold Bond stamps at A&P, Blue Triple-S stamps at Grand Union, Top Value stamps at Adams Market, and United stamps at Loeb’s Foodtown and Lee Super Market. The first national stores offered the green S&H stamps.
Although grocery stores are the biggest suppliers of trade stamps, I got most of my stamps from gas stations once I got my driver’s license and a car.
As the 1970s arrived, the use of trade stamps began to decline. I remember the energy crisis in the early 70s when gas prices jumped from 30 cents a gallon to over a dollar in less than a decade. With fuel shortages and long queues at pumps, gas stations no longer needed to give out stamps to attract customers. Free stamps and other conveniences like maps and windshield washing are also gone.
At the same time, supermarkets began to drop stamps in favor of lower prices, introduce their own promotional gifts and use their own coupons. Many adapted reward programs from credit card companies and also introduced loyalty programs with preferred customer cards, which are still used today.
Larger grocery stores with gas pumps began offering free gas with points earned on cards. Many “food-only” markets have turned into super department stores that sell clothing, hardware, sporting goods, toys, and other items for which stamps would typically be used at cash-back stores.
In 1970 only three commercial stamp companies still had redemption shops operating in the Berkshires. In 1973 S&H Green Stamps closed its last redemption store in Pittsfield and in 1975 Triple-S Blue Stamps closed its store when Grand Union stopped giving away stamps.
When Adams Market shut down Top Value Stamps in 1984, the last three commercial stamp shops in the county closed. In the 1980s, most commercial stamp companies stopped issuing paper stamps, and today the stamps are worthless.
I’m glad I don’t have to lick them anymore, but I still saved a variety for my memories and baby boomer stories, as well as my “free” power drill. Both could soon be recycled.