Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks

When George Felleman Goldsmith, Jr., died at his Fifth Avenue home, January 28, 1972, his obituary in the New York Times two days later said he was the "founder of Reader Mail, Inc., a service dealing with dress and needlework feature articles. . .  After a career involving various newspapers and publications, Mr. Goldsmith concentrated his efforts on the service, which is distributed throughout the United States, Canada and Britain by King Features."  The 1930 census describes his occupation simply as an advertising salesman but his wife, Rae, was a "patterns stylist."  When he filled out his World War II draft registration card in 1942, he described himself as self-employed by Reader Mail, Inc., 243 West 17th Street, New York City.  He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 7, 1896.  His father had been advertising manager for the Philadelphia Public Ledger for more than forty years.

The first of the group of New York City pattern companies responsible for the Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks needlework patterns, the Anne Adams and Marian Martin clothing patterns, and others, was incorporated August 13, 1928, and did not use a byline with its features in the beginning (see later).  As a group, the companies are a tangled web of names and addresses.  From their inception, the features created by the various companies were distributed in the United States by King Features Syndicate, Inc., a division of the Hearst Corporation.  King Features is represented in Canada by Star Newspaper Service / Toronto Star Syndicate.

In fact, King Features was "the only syndicate with its own exclusive pattern company, Reader Mail, Inc.," according to a King Features spokeswoman in a 1944 interview with Helen M. Staunton published in Editor & Publisher

The New York State Division of Corporations provides the answer to the connection between, and the final story of, our Laura Wheeler / Alice Brooks patterns, the Reader Mail name, and the Hearst Corporation.  (http://www.dos.state.ny.us/corps/bus_entity_search.html)  Trademark registration records from the United States Patent Office provide names and additional dates.

The company's known pattern bylines and the beginning dates for each one are:

Pattern Fashion Syndicate, Inc., incorporated August 13, 1928
  Anne Adams garment patterns byline from June 1931; 243 W. 17th St., New York City
  reincorporated July 7, 1941, as Reader Mail, Inc. (see again later)
  liquidated October 17, 1980; dissolved February 22, 1985

Marian Martin Pattern Service, Inc., incorporated July 29, 1931
  Marian Martin
 garment patterns byline from July 1931; 232 W. 18th St., New York City
  dissolved March 31, 1982

Needlecraft Service, Inc., incorporated (date not available)
  Laura Wheeler
 needlework patterns byline from April 10, 1933; 82 Eighth Ave., New York City; dissolved (date not available)

Household Arts, Inc., incorporated September 26, 1933
  Alice Brooks
 needlework patterns byline from November 1, 1933; 259 W. 14th St., New York City; dissolved March 31, 1982

Chain Pattern Corporation, Claire Tilden garment patterns byline from April 21, 1934
  635 Sixth Ave., New York City
Reader Mail, Inc., 635 Sixth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1936-1942, published a wide variety of self-help or "home service" booklets by various authors (see OCLC's WorldCat
http://www.worldcat.org/advancedsearch and the Library of Congress online card catalog)

Graphic Enterprises, Inc., pattern pamphlets, incorporation date unknown (prior to 1966).
  Mail order address:  any of the above, or a post office box at Old Chelsea Station.

Superior Pattern Co., 243 W. 17th St. / 232 W. 18th St., New York City.  Superior Needlework patterns, numbered in the 100 and 300 series, were sold in stores (including J. C. Penney) rather than by mail-order through periodicals, and seem to date in the 1940s and 1950s.  I have found pattern envelopes with and without the 17th St. / 18th St. addresses [was this company purchased by, or founded by one of the above companies?].  Pattern No. 303, Easy-To-Applique Quilt, is the only quilt I've seen listed on the back of the envelopes, but I have not yet found the pattern itself.

Hearst Patterns, Inc., incorporated July 3, 1980
reincorporated as Reader Mail, Inc., October 17, 1980
  243 W. 17th St., New York City; disolved February 1, 1989 (more later)

It is not known exactly how the Eighth Avenue, West 14th Street, and Sixth Avenue addresses were utilized for receiving mail in relation to the West 17th and 18th addresses that were across the street from the Old Chelsea Station post office, but the additional addresses had a definite purpose.  The company's trademark registrations in 1932 and 1934 and New York State incorporation records serve to tie them together as part of one company.

The companies were unique in that they created dress and needlework pattern lines that would compete against each other in the same city.  The numerous addresses also allowed King Features to supply two, three, or more of the various features to a single newspaper, each one of which appeared to be from a different source.  For example, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison subscribed to three of the above features in 1940--Alice Brooks, Marian Martin, and the home service booklets.  All three ads were published on the same page, September 16th, but each ad had a different New York City mailing address(NewspaperArchive.com)

The numerous street addresses were replaced in the 1950s by a variety of post office boxes at Old Chelsea Station across the street from Reader Mail's building.

Who were the people responsible for the company's operations over the years?

Except for his 1942 draft registration card, 1972 obituary, and a 1986 record fourteen years after his death, George Goldsmith's name has not been located in connection with the company he founded.  Instead, Polk's (Trow's) New York Copartnership & Corporation Directory; Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, 1933/1934 [for the year beginning November 1, 1932], page 996, and the 1935 Directory, page 970, identify Nathan Kogan as President of Needlecraft Service, and Max Levine as Vice President.

The same Directories, pages 673 and 660 respectively, identify Max Levine, Anne Borne, and Nathan Kogan as the Directors of Household Arts.  At the time I retrieved this information at the New York Public Library in 1986, I was unaware of the other company names.

Edith Halpern, April 1, 1932, as Secretary of Pattern Fashion Syndicate and of Marian Martin Pattern Service, applied to the United States Patent Office for trademarks on the Anne Adams and Marian Martin signature logos.

Alexander M. Burnham, November 28, 1934, as Treasurer of Needlecrft Service, of Household Arts, and of Chain Pattern Corporation, applied for trademarks on the Laura Wheeler, Alice Brooks, and Claire Tilden signature logos.  The application describes Claire Tilden as "paper garment patterns."

The applications stated the date when each signature logo had first been used--the dates as given above.  An attempt to identify Nathan Kogan, Max Levine, Anne Borne, and Edith Halpern in the 1930 census and through other sources was not successful (for example, there were 219 Max Levines recorded in New York State in 1930).

This unidentified face appeared in early 1933 ads promoting the Anne Adams dress and apron patterns.  Is this Anne Borne, the only woman identified with the upper management of Household Arts, creators of the Alice Brooks needlework patterns?  Or could she be Rae A. Goldsmith, wife of Reader Mail's founder, George F. Goldsmith, and described in 1930 as a "patterns stylist?"  Can this woman be identified?

In 1937, just a year after her graduation, Cornell alumna Ann Sunstein (Mrs. Theodore W. Kheel) was "head of the copy department for Pattern Fashion Syndicate, 243 West Seventeenth Street, New York City."  Cornell Alumni News (October 21, 1937), page 68.  (Biography and photograph, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/library/kheel/about/history/annSunsteinKheel.html and other sites.)

The New York Times identified another employee, May 6, 1943:  "Mina Fox, formerly with Reader Mail, Inc., has joined the staff of American Home."  Seven years later, Miss Joyce I. Dotts of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, a 1950 graduate from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, was employed as a commercial artist for Reader Mail, Inc., in 1950-1951.  She was identified in the announcement of her marriage in the Clearfield (PA) Progress, May 3, 1951.  (NewspaperArchive.com)

Alexander M. Burnham's obituary was published in the New York Times, February 3, 1975.  He was "secretary-treasurer of Reader Mail, Inc., distributor of syndicated dress and needlework patterns to periodicals. . .  Mr. Burnham graduated from the Columbia University Law School in 1915 and practiced law here for 15 years.  He served with the Marines in World War I."  He was born December 3, 1891, and lived in Queens and in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

In the 1980s, while a subsidiary of The Hearst Corporation, Spencer Douglas was identified as the Chief Operating Officer of Reader Mail, Inc., 243 West 17th Street, New York 10011.

A 1955 airline passenger list includes Alexander Burnham, Spencer Douglas, and their families returning to New York City from Montego Bay, Jamaica, where the Burnham's had a home, suggesting that both men were working for Reader Mail in the 1950s.  (Ancestry.com)  Further investigation revealed that Spencer Douglas was married to the Burnham's daughter Mimi (1922-2002).  Spencer Douglas was born October 5, 1918, and retired to Boca Raton, Florida, in 1984 where his wife died in 2002, but little else is known about him.

An extensive interview with Spencer Douglas about Reader Mail and its operations appeared in numerous newspapers in 1975.  In the May 4, 1975, Danville (VA) Register, "Patterns Reflect Times," Douglas is described as the "president of the world's largest mail-order pattern operation. . . .  For more than 40 years, Douglas' staff of 200 men and women have been turning out thousands of patterns daily for the more than 1,000 newspapers which offer them through their pages, emphasizing that his is a feature service exclusively for newspapers and not retail outlets."  "'Handicrafts are having a hey-day,'" he said.  "'You can see it in the quilt revival (boosted, no doubt by the coming bicentennial celebration).'"  During the course of the article, he identified Ginny Stutzlen* as the head designer and a long-time associate, and Aida Branda* as director of personal service.  He told the story that a Mansfield, Louisiana, housewife had recently written the Shreveport Times requesting a quilt pattern she found in her great-grandmother's trunk, but the clipping was from a 1936 issue, and the pattern had been discontinued in 1938.  "'Finally [Miss Branda] found a dingy photostat of the old design, so we reproduced the pattern and sent it to the woman--and we returned the 25 cents she had sent to cover the 10 cents cost of the pattern and handling expenses in effect 37 years ago.'"  The article relates "that of the millions of pattern orders his firm receives, his employees have the pattern on its way to 75 per cent of the seamstresses the same day 'and the other 25 percent are mailed the next morning.'  He has devised a trade-secret system for sorting the mail which brought postal officials into his plant to take notes."  (NewspaperArchive.com)

* The "Prominent Designer" dress patterns in the 1950s are signed, "Original by Ginny Stutzlen."  Aida Branda was born December 25, 1901, died January 11, 1998, New York City.

In a 1976 Editor and Publisher article similar to the newspaper article a year earlier, Reader Mail was described as "a newspaper response success story," and that a single newspaper ad could generate as many as 58,000 responses.  A long-time postal worker at Old Chelsea Station remembers pushing a large, wheeled mail cart across the street at least once a day.  When postal workers found loose coins on the floor, they tossed them into the cart on the assumption they had fallen out of one of the envelopes addressed to the pattern company.

Reader Mail occupied an 11 story building and an adjoining 6 story building in the Old Chelsea section of Manhattan's lower west side.  Both buildings extend all the way through from 17th Street on the south (the main entrance) to 18th Street on the north (the "back door") and are the only buildings in that block that do.  One can only imagine how many employees earned their livings there over the years. 

243 West 17th Street side of the 11 story building with the 6 story building on its left

243 West 17th Street entrance as it looked in October 1999

232 West 18th Street side of the 11 story building & the 6 story building on its right looking west and as it appeared in 1999

232 West 18th Street entrance, the "back door," as it looked in October 1999

Old Chelsea Station post office on West 18th across the street north of the Reader Mail building

Before the Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks bylines were created in 1933, a variety of needlework designs were sold in 1931 and 1932.  Three quilt patterns are known.  Marian Martin No. 807, shown on the left from the Decatur (IL) Daily Revue, July 24, 1931 (NewspaperArchive.com), and No. 817 with two designs, Grandmother's Bouquet and Old Fashioned Garden (not shown).  Illustrated on the right is an unnamed design, No. 712 with no byline, from an Indianapolis Star clipping, ca. November 1931, and the mail-order address, "243 West Seventeenth street, New York city."

The pattern companies were reorganized as subsidiaries of Hearst in 1980, first as Hearst Patterns, Inc., July 3rd, then as Reader Mail, Inc., October 17th.  Annual sales were estimated at $13 million by Ward's Business Directory, 1986 edition, the only year that sales figures are available.  Published fourteen years after his death, this Directory identifies G. F. Goldsmith as Reader Mail's Chief Executive, an unfamiliar name that I wrongly assumed at the time was a Hearst executive.

The Reader Mail name was first found in pattern ads and on mailer envelopes in January 1984 around the time the company was sold to the Simplicity Pattern Company and moved to Niles, Michigan, the site of Simplicity's primary manufacturing plant.  During the transition involved with the move to Michigan, pattern orders were sent to a Woodside, New York, address from approximately April 1985 to January 1988.

It's not known if records for the hundreds of Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks quilt patterns survived, but if they did, Simplicity certainly missed an opportunity to further commercialize those patterns to new generations of quiltmakers.

A sales sheet printed on newsprint and called the "Discount Pattern Shopper" dated January 1992 includes a message signed by Robbie Moore.  The mailing address was "Reader Mail, Discount Pattern Shopper, Dept. 7045, Box 4000, Niles, MI 49120."  The patterns offered in this sheet expired July 31, 1992, "since patterns are not available after that given date."  Apparently this sheet was replaced periodically by a new one.  Box 4000 was owned by the Simplicity Pattern Company in 1992 according to a Niles post office official.

Eight years later (in 2000), I found that "Readers Mail" or "Reader Mail," Box 520, Ludington, Michigan 49431 (http://sewing.about.com/library/weekly/aa081498b.htm), "publishes a catalogue of over 300 Childrens, Misses and Women's discontinued patterns."  A Google search in 2010 for the phone number, 800-852-3766, revealed a December 2005 newsletter from the Florida Quilt Network (http://www.floridaquiltnetwork.com/newsletters/news92.htm) that includes a message from Sally Richards with the website, PatternCentral (http://www.patterncentral.com/), explaining that "due to the expansion of the Quilt and Embroidery side of the business, we are looking for someone who would be interested in purchasing the Fashion side.  The patterns are original Simplicity patterns from the 1960's. . .  These patterns were originally sold through the newspapers in the 1960's and 70's.  These are discontinued Simplicity patterns [that] were sold through their company, 'Reader Mail.'  We purchased Reader Mail from them 5 years ago [in 2000], and have since expanded the Quilt and Embroidery side of the business, and have not put the effort into the Fashion side that it deserves."  PatternCentral is currently owned and operated by two sisters, Karol and RaeMarie, from their Ludington, Michigan, farm.

The death of Reader Mail's founder in 1972 followed by the death of the company's long time Secretary-Treasurer three years later, combined with a changing world--more and more women were working outside the home, families now had two cars giving homemakers mobility unheard of in the 1930s and 40s, the advent of specialized magazines (such as the new quilt magazines), the sale to Simplicity (a retail business unfamiliar with the mail-order business), along with the changing newspaper industry all worked against the once popular mail-order newspaper patterns and the companies that produced them, but Reader Mail survives by reinventing itself through new owners.

Portions of the above were first published in Wilene Smith, "Who Were Laura Wheeler & Alice Brooks?" in Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, no. 250 (March 1993).

© Wilene Smith, September 14, 2010, all rights reserved; updated January 6, 2015

New discovery, a fascinating 2-part interview with a former Reader Mail editor.

Part 1:  http://www.kestrelmakes.com/2011/07/interview-with-helene-former-editor-at.html

Part 2:  http://www.kestrelmakes.com/2011/07/part-2-interview-with-helene-editor-at.html


 

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