A while back I noticed this S&H Green Stamps ad in one of my old issues of Life Magazine from 1960. I had never heard of green stamps so I did a little digging and apparently they were a hugely popular program – the precursor to our modern day rewards programs like member discount cards and punch cards that give a free item when filled.
The Sperry & Hutchinson company was started by Thomas Sperry and Shelley Byron Hutchinson in 1896 as a way to encourage customers to pay in a timely fashion back when merchants allowed customers to have tabs that they paid later. Stamps were purchased by merchants – most often grocers, gas stations, and retailers – and were given away with purchases based upon the dollars spent. The amount of stamps given away was determined by the merchant, meaning some could get a leg up over their competition if they decided to give away more stamps. The incentive for merchants was that the program encouraged customer loyalty – consumers would choose to spend their money at places that gave away stamps so they could earn stamps to save for an eventual “free” reward.
S&H Green Stamps came in books of 1200, which could be filled with 1, 10, or 50 point stamps that had to be licked and meticulously placed in the grids. Stern warnings not to mix stamps were printed on every page. Once filled, the books could be redeemed for everything from office supplies to toys to furniture. These were not the junky prizes we’ve come to associate with freebies these days – these were brand name items, as boasted on one of the stamp booklet pages.
Save enough stamps and almost anything was in reach. There are accounts of trips to Disneyland, school buses, and even gorillas for local zoos earned with Green Stamps. Most of these larger items involved the pooling of stamps, of course, by schools or charitable organizations, something encouraged by the S&H company.
S&H had redemption centers in major cities, veritable wonderlands of possibility for the scrupulous shopper. They also printed catalogues of the items available for redemption. According to the back of the stamp book, if one lived within 25 miles of a redemption center they were not allowed to send away for their items; they had to visit the store. The rest of the stamp savers had to carefully pack up their filled booklets and redeem get their rewards by mail.
S&H was by far the most popular consumer reward program, especially between the 1930s and 1980s. It reached its peak in the 1960s, at the time printing more stamps than the U.S. Postal Service. The Post-war spike in consumerism fueled the success of the program, along with a decidedly opposite mentality: as the Depression-era children became the household shoppers, the consumer rewards appealed to deeply ingrained values of scrimping and saving in any way possible. There were also some competing stamp programs, like Blue Chip and Gold Bell, but they never saw the same distribution as S&H Green Stamps. Along with being hugely popular with the public, apparently the Sperry & Hutchinson Company was also a great one to work for. There’s a wonderful account of growing up in the S&H Green Stamps family here.
It’s pretty fascinating that such a popular remnant of culture has been almost entirely forgotten a few generations later. I would never have heard of Green Stamps had I not stumbled upon that Life Magazine ad, yet it seems like it was almost a part of daily life at one point.
I asked my parents if they remembered S&H Green Stamps and while they did, the program had already begun to wane by the time it was really on their consciousness. They remembered books of stamps but not getting anything exciting with them, as the items for redemption required far more stamps in the later days, making it less of a worthwhile endeavor. The stamps had mostly seen their end by the 80s, although a handful of merchants did still give them away until 2003. They do actually still have value today, so if you find some in the bottom of a drawer, don’t toss them out! They can be redeemed at greenpoints.com for gift cards from major retailers, gas stations, and hotels, although you can imagine that if they weren’t worth much in the 70s it has only gotten worse.