Offers of “free stuff” for motivating potential customers to become involved with a product or brand is not the invention of internet advertisers.
Advertising postcards have been around since the start of the postcard era in the early 1900s. During the 1950s and 1960s, postcards offering free gifts were a very popular as a “business-to-consumer” method of sales communications.
Retailers offered free gifts as a sales tool for building business. The gift was typically offered to customers as a “reward” for opening, re-opening or adding to their retail accounts. Businesses as diverse as banks, jewelry stores, carpet companies, gasoline stations and clothing stores all mailed advertising postcards to their lists of prospective and current customers. Interestingly, the household accessories that companies offered typically had no relation to their own line of business.
During the mid-1950s and through the early 1960s, the post-World War II generation were getting married, buying homes with VA loans, and starting families. At the same time, they were striving to move a step up the social ladder – usually from working class origins to the middle class.
Decorating the home with new furniture and stylish household accessories was a way to communicate to friends and family that “we are making it and moving up.” The chance to have desirable products for the home without having to pay for them proved to be very appealing to homemakers during the ‘50s and early ‘60s because they were both budget-conscious and status-conscious.
Mid-century Modern marketers understood that their customers wanted to be stylish on limited incomes and that homemakers would consider the items offered to be luxuries, not necessities.
Below are descriptions and images of some of the more kitschy free products that businesses offered their customers. Often, strings were attached to the free offer such a minimum purchase requirements or willingness to open or renew store accounts.
1. FREE – Our Gift to You! This advertising postcard offers a “7-Piece Aluminum Canister Set” with a testimonial on the front of the card: “It gave my kitchen a new look.” The reverse side promises “Yours Free…Just for Re-opening or Adding to your Account (with any purchase of $5.00 or more). Helzberg Jewelers, Independence, MO.
2. The Merry Chefs Ceramic Ensemble is offered as a reward for coming to Kranich Brothers jewelry store in Worchester, MA. The design of this ceramic ensemble rates a 10 on my kitsch scale.
The reverse side promised: “Bring this card for your FREE GIFT.
Below in small type is the minimum purchase requirement, “Just make a purchase of $15.00 or more.
3. Free products with “No Purchase Necessary” offers are designed to simply bring customers to the store – with the aim of having them become more aware of the array of the store’s products. Floor Craft Carpet Co. in San Francisco, Calif., for example, offers a free gift of a “Handsome All-Purpose Utility Dish.” The front side explains that this versatile dish can be used “as a Planter, Cigarette Container or Ashtray. Also perfect for nuts, mints and candy.” Hopefully, the recipients of this free gift item didn’t use it as both an ashtray and a candy dish! The product’s design and the accompanying advertising copy qualifies this product for a 10 on the kitsch scale, too.
4. The “imported, hand-painted Sugar and Creamer Set” was offered by Shell Gas Stations in the Chicago area. The only catch to obtaining this ceramic table accessory is that customers have to buy eight gallons of “Refiners Pride Premium Ethyl Gasoline,” as stated on the card’s reverse side.
5. Notice that the “No Purchase Necessary” text for both the Utility Dish and the Sugar and Creamer set use the same font style and the same headline copy on the front of both cards, “Our Gift to You,” These carbon copy messages suggest that a single advertising agency or publisher offered business owners a template for creating Free Gift advertising postcards.
6. Some customers would-open or add to their accounts so that they could get branded “luxury items” for free. A XXX company offers a 9-piece Fire King Ovenproof Casserole set and a XXX company promises to give away a 20-piece Royal Ruby Luncheon set as a reward for XXX.
7. One of the earliest examples of free offer postcards in my collection is Shell Gasoline’s “Free Comb” that is postmarked on September 1, 1939 in Brooklyn, N.Y. This date represents both the start of World War Two and also a time when Americans were starting to emerge out of the Great Depression with its severe financial deprivation. In this context, the chance to receive a free plastic comb was likely to entice customers to fill up at their local Shell Station.
Sharon Wolf is a member of the New York Metropolitan Postcard Club and has-been an avid collector of advertising chromes for 20 years. Some of the categories in her collection include room by room Home Furnishings, Women and Men’s Fashion, Transportation, Business and Industrial Equipment, Business Services and more. Her article, "Sitting Pretty: Mid-Century Living Room Furniture Advertising Cards” appeared in the San Francisco Bay Area Post Card Club News, Volume XXXII, No.2, April-June 2016, pp. 16-18. www.postcard.org/2016-04news.htm
A condensed version of the same article was published in Metro News: Bulletin of the Metropolitan Post Card Club of NYC, April/May/June 2018, p.1.