Growing up in Marlinton in the early 1900s
Stimulating sales in my father’s store
Stanley M. Klein
There were not many ways to stimulate business in the small town where Father had his dry goods store. An occasional full page ad in The Pocahontas Times announcing new fall or spring styles, or the arrival of two very important ladies – the millinery trimmer or dressmaker – was as much as he could do.
At that time, ready-made dresses and hats were almost unheard of. Each spring and fall season these two women put in their appearance. They were hired from Armstrong-Gator or one of the large Baltimore jobbing houses. Their task, never an easy one, was to assist in bringing the latest styles to Marlinton. They came armed with pattern books and illustrations. It was Father’s job to interview and hire these ladies in Baltimore and although I am sure that the women, who must have been practitioners of this art, were no more than twenty-five or thirty, it seemed to me that they all looked and acted alike, that is, capable and industrious ladies of fifty or so.
I do recall though the time a little after my sister’s birth when Mother was unable to go to Baltimore with Father on his buying trip. The ladies that were hired on this occasion were to me beautiful and looked as though they had stepped out of McCall’s magazine. There was a tremendous influx of men shopping on the lady’s side of the store, but with the exception of an increase in sales of Clarks O.N.T. 30 or 40 cotton, business was not as good as usual. The next buying trip was a joint one, and Mother again hired her old favorites, Miss Cass and Miss Haefner.
To stimulate lagging sales Father could do very little. The favorite device used was to fill a glass jar with beans and announce that the person who guessed closest the number of beans the jar contained would win a prize. One year Father decided to give a really good prize. After much consideration it was decided that a cut glass punch bowl would be the finest prize ever given away in Marlinton.
A letter was written to one of my aunts with instructions as to just what was wanted, and after many days the package arrived. After the box was opened and the wads of paper were taken out, the bowl was washed off and put on the counter. Aunt Bertha had done us proud. The cut glass sparkled as though it were made of diamonds and with the reflection from the multi-colored bolts of goods it stood near, entranced the entire sales force, but most of all, Father. He was almost speechless, only occasionally letting out cries of delight. So charmed was he by its beauty that nothing would do but that we should have it for our sideboard. Mother vetoed this suggestion after much soul searching and with a great amount of anguish. She said that it had cost a great deal, they needed it for the prize and besides, either my brother, Arnold, or I would certainly have it broken in short order.
Father reluctantly gave in and allowed a sign to be printed announcing the contest. The bowl was lovingly put in our center window and soon was being looked at by ‘most everyone in town.
One of the contest rules was that a sale of any amount entitled the purchaser to write his name on a slip of paper with his estimate and put it in a container. Business was brisk and although the size of sales not large, a great many people came into the store to look around—which was the main purpose after all. Meanwhile Father continued to admire the punch bowl. If he was needed at any time and wasn’t in the store, it was an easy matter to step outside and there he would be, deep in admiration.
The final day came along, the contest was over, and then came the tedious job. Mary and Agnes, two of our clerks, started counting the number of beans while Mother, Father and Ellsworth sorted the slips. At last the count was complete, slips were checked and Frank Anderson had hit the number exactly.
“Frank Anderson,” exclaimed Father. “He lives down by the river in a one room shack. That beautiful bowl should never be there.”
I’m sure that to him, hanging a Rembrandt painting in the livery stable could not have been more of a sacrilege.
However, Frank had won the prize and so the punch bowl belonged to him. It had been arranged that before the second movie showing at the Amusu Theatre, the winner would be announced. So that night, the bowl was taken there accompanied by the entire family and nearly the whole town. The time came for the slide to be shown on the screen, the winner handed the prize, and all was over.
We all left except Father who said that he would come home soon. After drinking our milk, Arnold and I waited up with Mother. Still excited from the day’s events, sleep for us was out of the question. At 10:30 we were still waiting, but Father hadn’t shown up. Over our protests we were sent to bed, but we lay awake talking. After a while we heard Father come upstairs and Mother saying, “Lou, what did you do?”
Rushing in we saw Father, flushed but triumphant, setting the bowl on the sideboard. Again we were sent to bed, but crept back to hear what had happened.
From the little we could overhear and our questions to the clerks the next day, we found out. After Father gave Frank the prize, he had walked home with him and offered to buy it. Frank, too, was enchanted by its sparkle and gaiety and had turned down Father’s offer of cash. Only after much persuasion would he walk to the store. There, only after being outfitted with a new suit, a Stetson hat and some dress goods for his wife, did he give in.
In later years Mother told me that Father’s joy was so complete that she hadn’t the heart to tell him that he paid twice as much to get the bowl back as he had spent in the first place.