Old catalogue a window into the past

Once again we are examining an artifact in the museum collection. Today we turn our eyes towards our Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company catalogue circa 1910.

The company was a large hardware wholesaler based out of Chicago from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Formed in 1882, it became one of the most dominant hardware wholesale companies in the United States, its market share peaking shortly after the end of the Second World War.

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What makes this catalogue so interesting is the sheer variety of products available for sale, everything from baby carriages to bed frames, saddles to anvils. Virtually any product that someone could wish for could be found in the pages of the company's enormous catalogue.

In the official history of HBS&Co. it was noted that, “Hardware seems to those who sell it be more human than any other kind of business.” The reason for this somewhat grandiose attitude is that the goods sold by Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company touched on every aspect of life, from cradle to coffin (quite literally in many cases).

As a wholesaler, Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company primarily sold to retailers rather than individual customers, so pricing often includes an individual unit cost as well as prices by the dozen. This flexible marketing approach allowed the company to sell its goods to any retailer, from the largest commercial centres to the smallest of general stores.

Like many other large companies, Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett had their own “in house” brands. Popular brands include O-V-B (Our Very Best) and True Value. In fact, True Value proved so popular that when Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett shut down in 1962, the line was sold off and became the namesake of True Value Hardware which carries the brand to this day.

Like many other wholesale brands, the company was not truly a manufacturer but rather a distributor. So goods would be manufactured by a third party and then stamped with the logo of one of the HSB&Co. subsidiaries. This meant of course that goods stamped with O-V-B or True Value still represented the company, and there was considerable pressure to ensure all third party goods were of the highest quality, as poor quality goods would reflect badly on the company.

Today goods carrying these brands are highly valued by collectors as the branding is seen as a guarantor of quality.

Visitors to the Virden Pioneer Home Museum will find our HSB&Co. catalogue on display in our second annex building as part of a larger display on business history in Virden and the surrounding area.

Brett Bambridge is summer curator of Virden Pioneer Home Museum.

 

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