Growing a Business by Mail
The concept of a “global market” is part of 21st century realities. For American businesses and customers of 1885, global markets were unknown. The nation’s economy had not yet fully developed a national market.
As of the early 1860s, packages weighing less than four pounds could be sent through the US mail as part of a new system that separated mail by class. In 1879 a third class was added for mail order merchandise. This, along with a new printing process that added photographs to product descriptions, and the fast-growing railway system, brought consumers and companies closer together.
Postmaster John T. Jackson
On April 1, 1891 John T. Jackson became the postmaster of Alanthus, Virginia. When he began his career, the twenty-nine year old was greeted with threats from those unwilling to accept an African-American in that position. He remained in his job for 49 years, retiring in 1940.
Jackson’s wife, Lille, worked as the town’s postmaster for seven months after John’s retirement. The family kept his distribution case and donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in the late 1980s.
The mail-order business blossomed in the late 1800s. With the postal service as a distributor, companies began to serve more and more customers across the country.
The seed business thrived on mail orders. Seeds were crucial to the economy, and they were given a special, lower postage rate. Seed catalogs and mail-order shipments enabled farmers to try new varieties of plants and follow the latest scientific advice.