How to Date Vintage Mail Order Sewing Patterns

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.

Mail Order Pattern from the 1930s in a 40 Bust

Mail Order Pattern from the 1930s in a 40 Bust

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…

Vintage Mail Order Pattern from 1954

Vintage Mail Order Pattern from 1954

…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

NRA Blue Eagle Logo

NRA Blue Eagle Logo

NRA logo on a 1930s pattern

NRA logo on a 1930s pattern

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…)

Vintage Pattern Envelope with Sec 562 P.L.&R. Stamp

Vintage Pattern Envelope with Sec 562 P.L.&R. Stamp

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….

Vintage Mail Order Pattern marked Sec 34.66 P.L.&R.

Vintage Mail Order Pattern marked Sec 34.66 P.L.&R.

Sec 435 1/2 P.L.&R.

Sec 435 1/2 P.L.&R.

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.

“Bulk Rate”

The identifying phrase for bulk mail changed on December 21, 1954 from Section whatever of the Postal Laws and Regulations to simply “Bulk Rate”

Bulk Rate Mail Order Sewing Pattern Envelope

Bulk Rate Mail Order Sewing Pattern Envelope

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.

In Summary…

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

 

References

Development of Postal Rates: 1845-1955, Jane Kennedy, Land Economics, Vol. 33, No. 2 (May, 1957), pp. 93-112

 

• Meet the Author • Katherine


I'm the editor at WeSewRetro so don't hesitate to get in touch with any problems or questions. In addition to keeping the good ship WeSewRetro afloat, I do an amateurish but enthusiastic job of raising a daughter, teach university professors how to dominate a computer by day and study for a masters in literature at night. My daily coffee consumption would kill a small horse. I'm having a clandestine relationship with bias binding and my idea of hell is turning a spaghetti strap right side out.


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15 comments… add one

  • i. am. amazed!
    this is brilliant! good work indiana- i am impressed!

    Reply
  • This is a FANTASTIC post! Thank you SO much!!!

    Reply
  • Of course, if you bought your pattern online without an envelope, you’re screwed…

    Reply
  • Thanks Katherine. This is a wonderful resource!

    Reply
  • This is brilliant. I love Mail Order patterns, especially when they come with their envelopes. At last I can begin to (approximately) date them!

    Reply
  • Fantastic! I collect (and occasionally use) Mail Order patterns, for just the reasons you mentioned; the styles are lovely and there’s a great size range for us plus-size gals. What a wonderfully informative article; now I know how I’m going to spend my snow day!

    Reply
  • fantastic article, Thank you so much!

    Reply
  • Thanks for the tips I just got some vintage mail order patterns for lingerie recently. My mom had bought them in Omaha, NE and sent them to me. I am going to try and figure out where they are from.

    Reply
  • This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing it!

    Reply
  • Thank you so much!
    I have a mail order I will have to dig out and check against this.

    Reply
  • What a great article!! I have some mail order patterns I am preparing to post in my little Etsy shop, now I know how to go about dating them.

    have a great day – Kate

    Reply
  • Thank you so much; this is exactly what I was looking for! I’m preparing patterns from my grandmother’s sewing box for sale on eBay and have just reached the stack of mail order ones. This will help me very much!

    Reply
  • Wow! Just found this! Great job!! Thanks for all the research you did!

    Reply
  • This is great info!

    Also, if the envelope has an address you can approximate the age by use/non-use of ZIP Code, state abbreviations and postal zones, etc.:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZIP_code

    Reply
  • Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, for posting a link to the Catalogue of Oval Postal Meter Indicia. You helped me solve a mystery.

    I purchased a curious looking letterpress block at an estate sale marked “U.S. Postage Paid Permit 2309 New York, N.Y.” The “Catalogue” indicates that the postage meter belonged to the N.Y. Edison Co.

    I’ll be posting the letterpress block in my Etsy shop soon. Feel free to stop by and take a look.
    happyfortunevintage.etsy.com

    Reply

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