The "National" Style Book - 1911
The first American mail order catalog appeared in 1872, when Aaron Montgomery Ward started distributing catalogs to rural areas. People who lived in rural America had few options for purchasing merchandise at that time. Clothes and supplies had to be purchased from local general stores. With the advent of mail order catalogs, consumers were given the freedom to purchase materials only found in metropolitan areas.
Catalogs provided consumers with a way to individualize purchases in the privacy of their homes. With the success of Montgomery Ward, and later Sears, other mail order business came to be. In 1888, the National Cloak and Suit Company opened to address the clothing needs of women. With the flagship store in New York City, the National executives decided to create a mail order arm of the business to provide consumers in rural areas a greater selection of clothing options. Many consider National to be the first mail order clothing store.
National valued customer service to a level that many retailers did not at the time. Adopting the Marshall Field expression "the customer is always right," National guaranteed satisfaction of their merchandise by refunding the purchase price and paying for the return shipping to any unsatisfied customers.
By the 1920s, National Cloak and Suit Company had changed its name to National Bellas Hess, but their dedication to mail order and customer service continued to the 1970s when the company ceased to exist. Even with the business being defunct, the company name continues to be known due to a 1967 Supreme Court case.
National Bellas Hess had left New York City to relocate in Kansas City. In 1966, the state of Illinois required that all National Bellas Hess mail order sales include sales and use tax. A year later, the case had made it to the Supreme Court where they decided in favor of National Bellas Hess stating that sales and use tax can only be collected from sales made by companies with a physical presence in the state. With no National Bellas Hess stores located in Illinois, taxes did not have to be added to orders. This ruling became extremely important with the rise in Internet sales where the ruling still applies.
The University of Southern Mississippi Special Collections owns the March 1911 "National" Style Book published by the National Cloak & Suit Company. This 224-page catalog contains images and prices for a variety of clothing options for women and children. The Made-to-Measure "National" suit was one of the signature items.
In addition to Made-to-Measure articles, the National Cloak & Suit Company sold ready-made clothing. The most popular items were shirtwaists of which they offered twenty-six pages of options. Other ready-made items include hats, scarf-veils, belts, neckwear, and corset covers. A handful of pages for children's clothing were included with no clothing for men.
To view the National Cloak & Suit Company catalog, visit Special Collections in McCain Library & Archives room 305. The book can be found at SPCOL TT500 .N268 1911. For information about this book or other items in Special Collections, contact the Special Collections reference desk at 601.266.4345 or Ask-a-Librarian.
Schultz, Ray. "The Ballad of Bellas Hess." MultiChannel Merchant. February 18, 2011.
Cherry, Robin. Catalog: An Illustrated History of Mail-Order Shopping. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.
Johns, W.H. "The Rise of the National Cloak and Suit Company." Printer's Ink. 90.1 (1915): 84-88.
Text by Jennifer Brannock, Special Collections Librarian