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Gary Borders: How many S&H Green Stamps did your mother save?

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I drove by the old S&H Green Stamp store on High Street in Longview the other day, on the way to taking Sam the Dog to the veterinarian for routine vaccinations. One has to have been on this planet a while to remember S&H Green Stamps. But I bet many of you reading this at least remember your moms collecting the stamps, even if you did not personally do so.

S&H Green Stamps were the first customer loyalty program offered by retail merchants. Not every store offered them, and those who did often competed against other retailers by holding “double-stamp days.” Shoppers collected the stamps in booklets and then traded them in at the S&H store for merchandise. It felt like free money when one walked into a redemption store with an armload of stamp books, ready to peruse the aisles for a new possession.

S&H stood for Sperry & Hutchinson, a company founded in 1896. Its heyday came in the 1960s, when the rewards catalog published by the company had the largest circulation of any catalog in the country. The company sold the stamps to retailers and then accepted them for products advertised in the catalogs and stocked at the redemption centers.

The catalog was called the “Ideabook.” It featured everything from lamps to bicycles, furniture to fishing poles. An image of a catalog found online shows items “for the man of the house,” including a Stanley tool kit for 19 books, a leather attaché case for 16 books and a Norelco electric razor for seven books.

An article in the York Maine Daily Record several years ago recounted how the Butcher family in the early 1960s saved enough stamps — 39 books — to obtain five “deluxe, 15-ride ticket books” to Disneyland. Since each book held 1,200 stamps, that comes out to 46,800 Green Stamps. That is a lot of loaves of bread and cartons of eggs.

My mother religiously saved Green Stamps and would redeem them for random items. I think she got an ashtray once, back when smoking inside the house was not considered aberrant behavior. As a newlywed several lifetimes ago, we also saved stamps for months on end, in order to purchase a floor lamp.

I watched a YouTube video of a 1962 S&H Green Stamp television commercial, shot in black-and-white. As the jingle singers belted out, “S&H Green Stamps, America’s most valuable stamp,” a pitchman recounts the many kitchen items that could be purchased: a vacuum sealer, an ice cream maker, a salad mixer, all demonstrated by a stereotypical housewife wearing a frilly apron. That year, more than 90,000 merchants distributed S&H Green Stamps to customers across the country. They usually displayed the S&H logo on their storefront and at each cash register.

The recessions of the 1970s, gas shortages caused by the 1973 oil crisis and other factors forced S&H to require more stamps to buy that set of bakeware on one’s dream list. By the end of the 20th century, with the Internet and World Wide Web making online coupons possible, the S&H company, which had been sold a few times, morphed into “greenpoints” used for online purchases.

An entrepreneur named Anthony Zolezzi bought the company last year and plans to relaunch the physical S&H Green Stamp that, according to his blog, “consumers will be able to redeem for sustainability and health-related products.” So who knows? Some of us might start collecting those S&H Green Stamps again.

As for the original stamps, they still hold some value, at least for collectors. I found several being offered for sale on eBay. For $3.99, one can buy a full book of stamps. And for $100, one can buy an original S&H metal sign.

In the old days, I wonder how many books of stamps that would have required?

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.