1913parcelpost

THE REVOLUTIONARY PACKAGE IN THE MAIL

A new era is here! Americans are embracing the revolutionary “sharing economy” where we sell everything to each other directly. We shop in an unlimited marketplace with fair goods at fair prices and delivered right to our door free (or fairly so). To roughly rework Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Oh, wonder! How many consumers are there here! How beauteous sellers are! O brave new world, That has such people in ‘t!” Of course, then her world-weary father, Prospero, pops her bubble and replies simply, “Tis new to thee.”

Prospero could have been thinking of the even braver new world which dawned on New Year’s Day, 1913. Now for the first time you could send a package to anyone in America, no matter how remote or distant – and the person at that place could send a package to you as well. It is probably impossible for any American alive today to appreciate what this meant to a nation which was still mostly rural, and equally hard now to understand why it was such a controversial idea at the time.

(Detail of cartoon from the San Francisco Call, January 5, 1913)

The service was parcel post and our great-grandparents enthusiastically began mailing stuff to each other immediately. The volume of mail at the San Francisco post office doubled the first day, the Call newspaper reported, and that was even before any trains arrived with parcels from outside the Bay Area.

At the start a package could weigh only eleven pounds max (the limit would soon be bumped to twenty) and there was a long list of items you couldn’t mail, particularly booze, animals alive or dead, guns, or things that might explode or stink. But the early days were somewhat chaotic, in part because there was circulating another, shorter list of forbidden items with live poultry being the only specified animal. There were also jokesters trying to mail silly things and get them mentioned in the paper – bricks addressed to Postmaster General Burleson were a favorite. “The most popular American toy today is the parcel post,” commented the Brooklyn Eagle. “Everybody in the land seems to be playing with it.” Gag items sent in the first week included a woman’s hat, a snow shovel, a tarantula in a little cage, a coffin split into two parts and eggs that hatched en route, as intended. Skunk pelts were reported in Kansas, Pennsylvania  and Arizona, while someone from Sonoma county sent a large Burbank potato with the address carved in it.

The Postmaster General issued a clarified set of rules at the end of the month – meat was no longer a “dead animal” – and the postal service settled into being a delivery service, hiring thousands of new workers. People came to expect parcel post being available from every sort of local business. If you lived in Cloverdale, for example, you could mail dirty clothes to a Santa Rosa laundry. You could get a freshly-killed turkey from Petaluma and order a fancy cake from a Sonoma square bakery.

Parcel post was cheap but if the sender and recipient were both in the “local zone” – meaning their mail carriers worked out of the same post office – it was nearly free: 5¢ for the first pound, up to 24¢ for the maximum 20 pounds (the weight limit went up to 50 pounds the following year). In the middle of 1913 the post office introduced C.O.D. so you no longer even had to pay for something until it arrived.

If that was the extent of Parcel Post, it still would have been a dramatic shift in the lives of most Americans. There was now a pipeline to their home from virtually any store or service; no longer was home shopping limited to what was offered from Sears and Montgomery Wards mail-order catalogs. But the revolutionary aspect of the service was that the pipeline flowed both ways – farmers could now sell direct to the consumers and bypass all middlemen, and sell they did: A mainstay of parcel post deliveries in those years were farm-fresh eggs, butter and lard. (Pictures of an egg mailing carton here.)

But the postal involvement didn’t end there. Rural mail carriers collected lists of which farmers had what to sell and copies were stuffed in mailboxes of city dwellers, as well as posted at public libraries. In 1914 they launched a farm-to-table movement – and yes, they called it a “movement” – that term was not an invention of foodie hipsters. At the same time on the urban front, women’s groups such as the National Housewives’ League promoted neighborhood collectives to manage bulk buying and handle storage of perishables, as few home kitchens had refrigeration.

These years just before WWI were probably the closest America ever came to achieving Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic, with town and country joined in harmony (or at least, in some places). But none of it would have happened had not the federal government done a bold and subversive thing by going into direct competition with a major private industry.

Prior to 1913 if you wanted to send a package to cousin Polly in Poughkeepsie you took it to an express office. There were about 30,000 offices across the country; if a hamlet was really small, it usually doubled as the telegraph office. It wasn’t a bad system for shipping stuff long distances, but the first problem was what happened when the parcel arrived. The express companies weren’t in the home delivery business; if your address wasn’t on their routes, the package would likely wait at the Poughkeepsie office until your cousin came in to pick it up. By contrast, the post office had a well-established mail delivery system nationwide with routes covering five times more mileage; the mailman was already going to Polly’s door once or twice a day anyway. The second problem with the express companies were their rates. Everyone griped they charged too much, but nothing was ever done; when Congressional hearings on parcel post began in 1911, the latest investigation by Interstate Commerce Commission had been going on for nearly two years.

We can thank Oregon Senator Jonathan Bourne, Jr., a progressive Republican in the vein of Teddy Roosevelt, for the creation of parcel post and all that followed. He might have been a swell fellow, but he could not chair a public meeting. If you’re a masochist with about ten hours to lose, read all eight days of Senate hearings and marvel at how often they get lost in the weeds. My favorite moment is when a guy tells the Senators, apropos of nothing, that “Brain and Personality” was the greatest book about the human mind published in the previous 25 years (spoiler alert: No).

Sparing Gentle Reader that ordeal, the testimony can be summarized as wildly contradictory. Parcel post would doom little country stores or parcel post would be a boon to little country stores. It was a giveaway to Sears and other big mail-order houses or it was a giveaway to the farmers. It was un-American to compete with the express companies or it didn’t go far enough and the government should take over the express companies. It was a big step towards socialism or it was an overdue step to help reduce the cost of living for workers. It would bust the post office budget (which only recently had wiped out a big deficit) and plunge it deeply into the red or it might possibly make a profit.

To the astonishment of nearly everyone, as the end of 1913 approached it was reported parcel post had turned a whopping $30 million profit. Other benefits of that year’s success included the express companies lowering rates and offering new farmer-friendly services. The ad below for “Christmas Prunes” was a deal intended to be sent via parcel post, according to an item in the Pacific Rural Press, but apparently an express company jumped in with a more competitive offer.

(Oakland Tribune cartoon Dec. 22, 1913)

But before the post office could take a victory lap, it had to survive the tsunami.

Everyone loved parcel post so much they felt empowered to send gifts to all their Christmas card relatives – Aunt Irma, Uncle Herb, Cousins Willy and Mabel and Edith and her husband Sid and everyone’s little ones whom they knew only by name. So enormous was the volume of parcel post mail in the week before Christmas that every day set a new all-time post office record over the day before. “There is always a great volume of mail around Christmas time,” a December 20 wire service story reported, “and this year, with the added task of handling hundreds of thousands of parcel post packages, the offices in the larger cities would have been hopelessly swamped but for emergency measures.” Efforts to cope with the unending piles of parcels were epic and it became a major news story, with several papers offering cartoons such as the one seen here; another popular variation showed an express company driver having a good laugh at the poor mailman’s misery.

The obl. Believe-it-or-not! epilogue to the launch of parcel post came a few weeks after Christmas, when May Pierstorff’s mother glued stamps to her five year-old’s coat and parcel posted the child to her grandparents 73 miles away. Because she was just under the new fifty pound weight limit, postage was 53 cents.

She wasn’t the first child to be mailed nor was she the last, although the newspaper stories about these kids always mentioned it was against the rules to send people through Parcel Post. But guess what: That wasn’t true – unless you counted the regulation that “meat may not be shipped through more than two parcel post zones.” It wasn’t until June, 1920 before the post office decreed no humans could be shipped in the mail regardless of weight, inspiring the bestest headline that ever appeared on the front page of the New York Times: “Rules Children Cannot Be Sent by Parcel Post as Live Animals.”


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SALESMAN SANTA COMES TO SANTA ROSA

Call it the year Santa Rosa embraced Santa Claus – or rather, the year downtown retailers discovered the jolly ol’ elf was a great salesman.

1913keegansantaIn the days before Christmas 1913, Santa invaded the advertising in the Press Democrat. The full page ad for the White House department store (shown below) had no less than four Santas, which was about the headcount seen in all ads in any year prior. Why the population explosion in 1913?

It wasn’t as if Santa was suddenly linked to the concept of Christmas presents. During the Christmas of 1910 advertisements urged shoppers to come downtown and have fun buying gifts. The part of the White House ad below with Santa leaning on his knuckles first appeared that year, and another 1910 store proclaimed it was “The Real Home of Santa Claus.” Kids back then were also clued in to making want lists; in 1908 tykes picked up the telephone and asked the operator to connect “Santy Claus.” The PD reported the telephone office didn’t know what to do at first but soon decided the “Hello Girls” should become Santa’s little helpers, with the chief operator taking down names and list details (and no, their parents were not required to first sign two-year service agreements).

Those pre-1913 Santas are also sometimes hard to recognize. He was less roly-poly than we expect today (the guy in the White House ad was pretty buff) and was more like Father Christmas of 19th century England. He rarely smiled in the earlier ads and even appeared a little grumpy; in this Keegan Brothers ad he looks stooped and damn tired of hauling that bag down chimneys, as if he were just an oddly-dressed workingman in the delivery business. (The caption should have read “At Your Service” and was corrected in later versions.) So another change in 1913 was that Santa was happier as well.

It would be easy to presume Santa received a 1913 makeover by a Madison Avenue advertising agency and everyone followed suit, but that’s not the case. It would be many years later, in 1931, before Coca-Cola would forever transform Santa into the iconic image we all know today. Instead, he evolved in the 1910s and 1920s into a ruddy obese fellow without any firm ownership. A personal favorite is the 1923 ad for White Rock soda water showing Santa apparently reading letters from children with his nose as red as his cheeks, having polished off half a bottle of bourbon. Note that his trash basket is overflowing with tossed-out Christmas lists and also note the year 1923 was during Prohibition. Are YOU gonna confront Mr. Claus when he’s being naughty? I think not.

The mystery of Santa Rosa’s Santa ads only deepens when compared to the big Bay Area newspapers where Santa was almost a no-show. In San Francisco and Oakland the holiday shopping ads usually just showed the merchandise if there was any illustration at all. Never did any of the Santas found in the PD appear there.

Among the California newspapers with online archives (a pretty small number, admittedly) the only papers which were similarly Santa-clogged came from Modesto and Santa Ana – towns which were very much like Santa Rosa: Mid-sized rural county seats with a few department stores. Their department stores ads even used most of the exact same Santa illustrations as our department stores, demonstrating it was stock art provided by the manufacturers (free, undoubtedly) to dress up ads in these smaller markets.

1913pdcartoonInstead of pushing specific stuff or a sale, the mission of these 1913 Santas was simply to get your warm body into those local department stores. It was by no means assured customers would be going to those merchants anyway; as shown in the article about Christmas 1910, they were competing with hardware stores which advertised “practical” gifts. Hopefully if the holiday shopper could be lured through the door of Rosenberg’s, Dibble’s or one of the other places, a new galvanized wash tub would no longer seem to be an appealing present.

No discussion of Christmas in 1913 Santa Rosa would be complete without mentioning the 800 lb. gorilla in the room – or rather, the Godzilla-like Santa that appeared on the front page of the Press Democrat on Dec. 25. Taking up half of the front page, the cartoon illustrated a story about the PD’s Christmas Exchange, which was the annual holiday gift drive for needy kids. Here Santa teeters unsteadily as little two-dimensional creatures tug at his hand and gift sack. His blank expression makes you wonder if he had way too many of those bourbon and White Rock sodas before coming to the party.

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ernestfinley1923

SANTA ROSA’S INK-STAINED ODD COUPLE

December 14 should be a red-letter day at the Press Democrat; it was then in 1912 when Ernest Finley married Ruth Woolsey. Not only was this the founding of a little publishing dynasty which would endure until the PD was sold in 1985, but that date serves as a fair marker for the moment Santa Rosa became a one-newspaper town – five days earlier, editor Finley’s old rival at the Santa Rosa Republican, Allan Lemmon, sold his interests in that paper and retired.

(Detail of 1923 photo of Ernest Latimer Finley at his desk in the Press Democrat office. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Before diving into that history, a few comments about the modern Press Democrat, which just introduced a revamp of the paper. Few may notice the changes – local news on the front page, a weekly outdoors section and more food coverage, amid other tweaks. Publisher Catherine Barnett says over 1,500 commented about what they wanted to see in the PD and her take-away was the readership mainly wanted the paper to keep on doing a fantastic job. She couldn’t even go to a party or wine tasting “without someone wanting to go off in a corner and discuss what mattered most about our coverage.” Apparently the local know-it-alls have mastered the gentle art of flattering criticism to a degree of which I was unaware.

But the real issues are not trivial things such as page layouts or the balance between lifestyle coverage and opinion. That’s a false dichotomy – like asking Santa Rosans whether cinnamon or saffron is their all-time favorite spice. The main problem with today’s Press Democrat is there’s so little of it. The pages are slim and few, with the newspaper nearly disappearing entirely on Mondays and Tuesdays. For years the newsroom has been reduced to an overworked skeleton crew. With rare exceptions – such as the outstanding coverage of the Valley Fire – local news coverage is largely picking low-hanging fruit from press releases, squawks from the police scanner and appeals to readers for story content. Just a few years ago when the PD was flush with profits this would have been called lazy journalism; today you have to feel sorry for everyone involved. Unless Catherine Barnett is able to rebuild the newsroom and offer a more substantial newspaper, she’s only pushing around deck chairs on the Titanic.

Although Santa Rosa was ten times smaller a hundred years ago, the PD still managed to fill three or four pages every day with local news. Some of it appealed to a pretty narrow readership, but better to not risk the item appearing only in the competition. And that was the big difference between then and now: Santa Rosa was a two newspaper town, although that comes with a big asterisk.

Ernest Finley’s Press Democrat was a morning paper focused on Santa Rosa, particularly development and commercial interests. For many years Finley was president of the Chamber of Commerce so it’s no surprise the PD was their voice. Allen Lemmon’s Santa Rosa Republican was a smaller evening paper mostly directed at farmers; every week there was an item covering the doings in each of the small towns in the area.

Until Lemmon’s 1912 retirement, he and Finley were something of Santa Rosa’s editorial odd couple, and not just because of the different Democrat/Republican allegiances. They even looked the part; the two can be seen together in a 1909 Chamber of Commerce group photo with Lemmon looming over Finley’s right shoulder, looking for all the world like a rumpled Walter Matthau, with Finley resembling a tightly-wound Tony Randall.

They were men of different generations. Lemmon was born in 1847 and before coming to Santa Rosa had a career in Kansas, where he was a teacher and superintendent of schools while also editing a weekly paper. He was a progressive in the vein of Teddy Roosevelt and when he bought the Republican in 1887, was a good counterbalance to Thomas Thompson, the Sonoma Democrat editor still nursing a grudge over the South losing the Civil War.

Finley was 23 years younger and had lived in Santa Rosa since childhood. He had no newspaper experience at all when he and two friends began a small paper called the Evening Press in 1895 with him as the publisher and Grant Richards as editor. When the Democrat became available in 1897 the three formed a corporation with bankers Overton and Reynolds and bought it. Less than a year later, Finley became editor of the hybrid Press Democrat after Grant Richards had a nervous breakdown and killed himself with a shotgun.

At the turn of the century Finley was still a young man of 29 and a brash conservative, eager to pick a fight in his paper. The person he most often tried to beat up was poor old Allen Lemmon, while during election years he also defended the status quo and attacked the reformers who wanted to clean up Santa Rosa; for more on those dust-ups, read “THE MANY WARS OF ERNEST FINLEY.”

(Cartoon of Allan B. Lemmon from the San Francisco Call, 1896)

The last salvos in the Finley-Lemmon battle came in February 1911. Finley ‘dissed the Republican as the “Evening Blowhard” and Lemmon shot back by calling him “Egotist Latitude Finley, whose brightness is never seen in the columns of the paper over which he is called to preside.” A couple of weeks later they both went nuclear over Fred J. Wiseman’s airmail flight in an exchange where they forgot all about Wiseman and just lobbed insults at one another. No one would have been surprised to find either of them setting bear traps outside the other guy’s door.

But after that, peace. Both newspapers supported women’s suffrage in the historic vote later that year and they even made it through the big elections of 1912 without drawing knives. What happened?

Partial credit probably goes to Finley’s bride-to-be Ruth Woolsey – or at least, his desire to marry and settle down. In late 1911 he pushed a wheelbarrow with a bale of hops ten miles to settle a bet, accompanied by an entourage of twenty-somethings including Ruth, and with the money from the bet he treated them to a night out in San Francisco. Or maybe he decided at age 42 it was time to grow up.

Allan Lemmon likely also just lost the heart to fight. He was 65; even though his newspaper was apparently then entirely edited by partner J. Elmer Mobley, it too seemed old and tired.

As the newlywed Finleys left for their honeymoon, a new company took over the Republican. Among the owners were Rolfe L. Thompson, leader of the reformers in town, and head of the new company was none other than attorney James Wyatt Oates, himself a former editor and writer. For a time the Santa Rosa Republican was a lively read and the arguably the better paper in town, but Finley had the greater readership, and with it greater influence. As WWI approached the Republican settled into being more like the paper it was under Lemmon – the loyal opposition to the Press Democrat, which was to everyone’s loss.


How fortunate for us all that Santa Rosa has its EVENING BLOWHARD. If it were not for that enterprising sheet, we might all still be laboring under the mistaken apprehension that the big show was to be pulled off in Kamchatka or “some other foreign seaport.”

– Press Democrat editorial, February 1, 1911

 

LURID MELODRAMA AT THE COLUMBIA

“The Chinatown Trunk Mystery,” a wierd [sic] melodrama of the old Central Theatre type–and then some–held down the boards Wednesday evening at the Columbia. The performance was about what was to be expected, considering the lurid character of the paper displayed on the billboards about town. A local Chinaman accompanied by a police officer in plain clothes was on hand, ostensibly to represent the Chinese Vice Consul. The latter feature was only part of a somewhat, overdone advertising scheme, however, and fooled nobody except one bright young man connected with the afternoon paper.

– Press Democrat editorial, February 2, 1911

 

EGOTIST LATITUDE FINLEY SHOWS HIS “BRIGHTNESS”

Perhaps the best thing about the performance at the Columbia theater on Wednesday evening was the orchestrations between the acts. Leader Bud Parks and his musicians rendered some lively two steps which were decidedly pleasing. The performance was mediocre, but nevertheless attracted quite a large audience, when the threatening and inclement weather is taken into consideration.

Thee is little chance for acting in the piece, and those who presented it did not attempt the impossible. The protest sent by Consul General Li Young-Yew resulted in Chief of Police John M. Boyes sending an officer with a delegation of three prominent Chinese of the local colony to the theater to see that nothing immoral was permitted. Egotist Latitude Finley, whose brightness is never seen in the columns of the paper over which he is called to preside, by grace of its actual owner, attempted some funny stunts in his “dramatic criticism” of the play, and shows his asinine qualities more than previously.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1911

 

ERNEST FINLEY WILL MARRY
To Lead Miss Woolsey to Altar in Near Future

Some time before the holidays Editor Ernest L. Finley will wed Miss Ruth Woolsey. For some time past the friends of the couple have anticipated the announcement, and now that it is known, they are receiving the congratulations of their wide circle of friends.

Miss Woolsey is the daughter of Frank Woolsey of Woolsey station. She is a social favorite here and around the bay. She is a pretty girl with charming ways, which have made her popular with all who know her.

Mr. Finley is editor of the Press Democrat and needs no introduction to the people of Sonoma county, as he has taken a prominent part in the affairs of this section for some time. He is a member of the Elks and other fraternal organizations.

Owing to death recently in each of the families of the contracting parties, the wedding will be a quiet one.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 14, 1912

 

TO PURCHASE THE REPUBLICAN
Allen B. Lemmon to Dispose of His Interest

Articles of incorporation of the Santa Rosa Republican Company have been filed with County Clerk William W. Felt, Jr. The capital stock of the company is fixed at $24,000, and each member of the board of directors of the corporation has subscribed for two shares of the stock.

The board of directors consists of J. Elmer Mobley, James W. Oates, R. L. Thompson, Charles C. Belden and Mrs. Pearl J. Mobley.

It is the purpose of the new corporation to take over the Santa Rosa REPUBLICAN, which Messrs. Allen B. Lemmon and J. Elmer Mobley have conducted since the big fire of 1906 as a co-partnership. The formal transfer of the property will take place in a few days.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 27, 1912

 

EDITOR LEMMON SOON TO RETIRE
Stock Company Formed to Take Over His Interests in the Santa Rosa Republican–Articles Filed

Allen B. Lemmon, the well known editor of the Evening Republican, has announced his intended retirement from the newspaper field. On Wednesday articles of incorporation of the Santa Rosa Republican Company were filed with County Clerk. The object of the company is to take over Mr. Lemmon’s interest in the paper above named. The company is incorporated, for $24,000, and the directors named are Rolfe L. Thompson, J. E. Mobley, James W. Oates, C. C. Belden and Pearl Mobley. Each of the directors named has subscribed for two shares of stock. It is understood that formal transfer of the property will be made within a few days.

For more than twenty years-with the exception of a year or so previous to the fire, when the paper was leased to other parties–Mr. Lemmon has presided over the destinies of the Santa Rosa Republican. For some time he has been anxious to dispose of his interests and retire from active newspaper work. He retires with the best wishes of a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and the new owners are wished every success in their venture.

– Press Democrat, November 28, 1912

 

ANNOUNCEMENT

The formal transfer of the Santa Rosa REPUBLICAN newspaper and job printing business to the Santa Rosa Republican Company. a corporation, occurred Monday afternoon. With that date my connection with this paper and business terminated. My entire interest in the plant has been purchased and taken over by the corporation, which is composed of well known residents of Santa Rosa.

Since the big fire of April 18, 1906, the paper has been conducted as a partnership between  J. Elmer Mobley and myself. My retirement is due to a desire to be released from the constant strain of newspaper work.

For almost a quarter of a century I have published the REPUBLICAN as a daily and semi-weekly newspaper. The readers of the paper know whether or not the work has been done well.

In quitting the newspaper field, my thanks are extended to the many friends who have given the paper hearty support during the time it has been under my control. The mangement has my hearty good will, friendship and desire for the success that is sure to follow well directed efforts.

ALLEN B. LEMMON.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 10, 1912

 

Society Gossip by Dorothy Ann

IN THE soft light of many candles that flared and flickered and cast their shadows over the assemblage of immediate relatives, Miss Ruth Woolsey and Ernest L. Finley plighted their troth for better or for worse on Saturday at high noon at the home of the bride’s father, Mr. Frank Woolsey of Woolsey…

…Miss Woolsey was given into the keeping of her husband by her father, Mr. Woolsey. There were no attendants. Although simplicity marked every feature of the wedding, the bride wore the regulation white satin gown, made en train and draped with beaded chiffon…

…After congratulation had been extended the wedding party were served with an elaborate wedding breakfast in the dining room, where an artistic decoration of mistletoe and white satin streamers had been arranged. The center of the bridal table was a mass of pink carnations and ferns. A tempting menu was served.

Mr. and Mrs. Finley motored to one of the nearby stations, and there took the train for San Francisco. It is understood that Los Angeles and other Southern cities will be the objective point where the honeymoon will be spent.

[..]

– Press Democrat, December 15, 1912

 

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