A version of this post originally appeared on Sew Retro and my own blog, but when I received an email earlier this week asking for the link to it I realized I’d stupidly deleted it from both places. Here is a new version with updated pictures.
Mail order patterns are a too often overlooked treasure trove, not just for their adorable designs but the social history and connection to the past that comes from knowing a little bit more than usual about the original seamstress. The bulk of ephemera and enclosures I’ve found stuffed in pattern envelopes have been from mail order patterns.
In addition, mail order sewing patterns tended to be available in a wider range of sizes. I’ve seen a reasonable amount of mail order patterns in a 48″ bust, which is as common as unicorns in vintage patterns from the Big Three regular pattern companies (McCalls, Simplicity, Butterick). If you’re striking out finding larger vintage patterns, consider giving mail order patterns a try.
Mail order patterns are seldom (I’m not quite brave enough to say “never”) dated, and they had a much longer life than the patterns we are used to seeing in the sewing stores. If you don’t have a nice clear mailing date in the postmark, like this…
…it can be tricky to pin down a date range. But, thanks to their mailing envelopes and the hard work and enthusiasm of philatelists (that’s postal boffins, to you and I) we can narrow down the dating possibilities quite a bit. Which is something my hairdresser did for me for most of my teenage years.
Let’s look at some clues that can help narrow down a possible date range for vintage mail order patterns…
The NRA Blue Eagle Emblem
While this isn’t specific to mail order patterns, or even to patterns in general, it’s worth mentioning here. Anything with the NRA Blue Eagle emblem can be dated to between 1933 and 1935.
The NRA, or National Recovery Administration, was a major component of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which is far more interesting, controversial and involved than I could ever do justice to here. Suffice to say, businesses who supported the NRA (whether willingly or for fear of public boycott) put the blue eagle emblem on their packages.
The NRA was declared unconstitutional in 1935 and the use of the Blue Eagle emblem banned.
A little background on Third Class bulk rate
Mail order patterns were commonly mailed third class.
First class was intended for letters and postcards, second class for newspapers and magazines, fourth class for parcels and third class for advertising circulars (the ever-unpopular junk mail) and “miscellaneous items” – basically anything that didn’t fit in first or second class but wasn’t a parcel.
Pricing for third class really didn’t change that often, which makes it difficult to date precisely by the amount of postage on the envelope. But due to the government control of the post office and the legislative hoopla that comes along with it, we can glean some dating information from the phrases that were mandated by congress to be printed on envelopes mailed in bulk via third class.
Although third class originated very early in the postal service’s history, it was not until 1928 that a discounted rate was set for third class bulk mailings. In order to qualify for the third class bulk mailing rate, you had to ship at least 20lbs or 200 pieces of identical mail at once, which is exactly what our mail order pattern companies were doing.
Sec. 562 P.L.&R.
From October 1, 1932 (until it was superseded in 1949) anything sent third class bulk rate had to have the phrase Sec. 562 P.L.&R. printed on the envelope, indicating the article was in compliance with Section 562 of the Postal Laws and Regulations (which has to make riveting bath time reading…surely…)
Sec. 34.66 P.L.&R.
On February 25, 1949, Sec. 562 P.L.&R. on the envelopes was replaced with Sec. 34.66 P.L.&R. This coincided with an increase in the bulk mailing rate from 12c per pound to 14c per pound, but as the minimum price per piece remained at 1c this little titbit of information isn’t of much practical use to us. I throw it in just to show off….
But what about Sec. 435 ½ P.L.&R.?
If you have Sec. 435 ½ P.L.&R. marked on your envelope, you lucky devil, it’s pre- October 1, 1932. I don’t yet have a verifiable start date for this mandatory notation, but I’m working on it.
The identifying phrase for bulk mail changed on December 21, 1954 from Section whatever of the Postal Laws and Regulations to simply “Bulk Rate”
1½ Cent Minimum per Piece
Up until 1952, the minimum per piece of third class bulk mail was 1 cent. This now changed to 1½ cents. Bulk mailings were priced by the pound but this minimum stipulation helps us date any piece of third class bulk mail marked 1c to before 1952.
Dating by Postal Meter Number
Theoretically, it should be possible to date a pattern by identifying the postal meter that printed the postage. If you’ve ever purchased a meter from a major manufacturer, you’ll know they are pretty serious about serial numbers and accurate records which is unsurprising considering a postage meter essentially prints money.
Logic dictates, therefore, that somewhere in a mystical vault there is a master list of postal meter serial numbers with the dates that meter was in service. Like Indiana Jones, I donned my fedora and set off on that quest…
One only has to delve briefly into the tumultuous world of postal meter research online, however, to realize that, wow, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to justify this. Don’t believe me? Take a glance at the 362 page Catalogue of Oval Postal Meter Indicia compiled by the delightfully fastidious gentlemen and ladies of the Meter Stamp Society. If you find their information useful, I’m sure they’d appreciate a quick note of thanks.
I know there is some information floating around the vintage pattern community concerning dating Pitney Bowes meters, but I’d exercise caution in assuming a meter was created by a Pitney Bowes machine. Pitney Bowes is just one of many meter companies, and it’s not always apparent from an unmarked meter stamp who created it.
NRA Blue Eagle emblem = 1933 to 1935
Sec. 435 ½ P.L.&R. = Prior to October 1, 1932
Sec. 562 P.L.&R. = October 1, 1932 to February 25 1949
Sec. 34.66 P.L.&R. = February 25 1949 to December 21, 1954
1c Price. = Pre-1952
Development of Postal Rates: 1845-1955, Jane Kennedy, Land Economics, Vol. 33, No. 2 (May, 1957), pp. 93-112