Office Supplies On the Go in 1895

Today, in a coffeehouse or an airport, and other places as well, people work on laptops and netbooks. In 1895, you could buy a “pocket inkstand.” One in the Montgomery Ward & Co. mail-order catalog (republished in 1969 by Dover Publications) had a screw top and promised that it could not leak, which would certainly ruin your clothes.

The catalog suggests that this is good for tourists. I suppose you could write “picture postcards” and keep a travel journal, writing while sightseeing. Within ten years, the Brownie camera would change the way ordinary people recorded their vacations.

If you were in business or teaching, you could order a portable blackboard, even a cloth one you could roll up, stick in a bag, and use anywhere.

The Sack Suit

 This ad for a sack suit is in the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, and is dated 1900.  Click on the picture to enlarge it.  The model is drawn to be svelte, but the jacket is still big.  On an ordinary man, the jacket was big and boxy.

The caption reads, “The New Bowdoin Sack Suit” and below it, “About the nobbiest that you will see this season.”

I love the style of the text — the voice — in ads around 1900.  They all sound as if they were written by the same person.

Sack suits were more casual than knee-length suit jackets, called frock coats or frock suits, which were formal but still for daytime.

“The sack suit … was leisure wear for men who might wear a frock coat, and the best clothes of vast majority of American men,” writes Walter Nelson.  “A banker would wear a sack suit to a picnic, and a cowboy or farmer would wear it to church,”  he writes at  The Gentleman’s Page , an entertaining resource about historic menswear on

“Give Me a Ring Sometime”

From Champaign County Historical Museum. Photograph taken by Dori ([email protected]).

Before 1900, some Western cities had telephone service, but most folks who lived on farms or ranches had to go into town to use the phone.  Telephone poles and lines connected towns, but it wasn’t until later that they extended to individual rural homes.  Stores and saloons in towns installed telephones for the townspeople to use.

This very common early phone was mounted on the wall, so a caller had to stand to use it.  There were bells, a stationary mouthpiece, and a receiver you held to your ear.  To begin, you turned a crank on the side to generate electricity.  I believe the caller turned the crank when the conversation was over, too.

The telephone pictured has a dial for phone numbers, but other ones did not have this.  You spoke to a person, an operator, and he or she connected you.

In When I Grew Up Long Ago, Alvin Schwartz writes that callers tended to raise their voices when they spoke, not because they had to, but for psychological reasons, because the people were blocks apart.

In the late 1800s and later, a “call” was the term for a visit.  “Callers” were visitors, and “gentleman callers” were often suitors.  The phrase “telephone call” meant a visit conducted by telephone, and it has stayed in our language over a hundred years.

Polo, Tennis, Cowboys, and the Folks Next Door

In one online writing class, my instructor and my virtual classmates were skeptical of the 1890s sport I described in my novel-in-progress.  In a class such as this, you don’t have the privilege of meeting the other people.  This instructor lives in New York and the other writers lived in various parts of the country.  I had posted sections of a novel I was writing, and some who read it wrote that cowboys could not possibly have played polo.

We picture polo as a sport played only by the wealthy, and on manicured fields.  Around 1900, polo was popular with cowboys.  Remember, they were good horsemen.  In a historic “saddle-up barn” in Wyoming, polo mallets still hang on the wall.  Around this time, people did not let the absence of courts deter them from fun and exercise.

I have a replica of an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. mail-order “Catalogue,” published much later by Dover, which reprints all sorts of fun publications from that era.  From this 1895 catalog, people could order croquet sets, all sorts of baseball equipment, and everything to play “lawn tennis,” whether or not you had a lawn.  On farms and ranches, people simply took sporting equipment outside.

This catalog offered lawn tennis nets and poles, balls singly or by the dozen, and “lawn tennis bats,” which the catalog points out that the name for the bats is “racquets.” The handles and frames were of wood, usually white ash, not metal like today.  I remember when tennis rackets were made of wood.  Rackets for children started at seventy-five cents.  Full-size ones ranged greatly in quality and price, from$1.75 to $6.90.

Marking the boundaries was trickier.  One set for this included boundary marking tape, pins, staples and webbing.  I think I would get the set with iron markers, painted white, “with pins for fastening in ground.”  It sounds like your eye connects the dots using these markers and there are special markers for the corners.

Ah, the good old days.  No TV, outdoor fun and a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade.  One of the down sides, though — in the catalog, the 1895 editors wrote the page filler, “Lawn tennis is a game for everybody.  The best athletes find it requires all their energy, and yet the weakest girl can play the game.”  Another down side — the pounds of clothes the women wore.

Makes me want to play a game outdoors.  At your next outdoor gathering when the weather is warm enough, consider croquet or bocce, or badminton for the fitter folks.  Don’t forget the lemonade.