Wednesday, July 6, 2011

52 Trade Houses Part 14: General Merchandise Co. of Milwaukee

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Over the course of the next year, we'll be detailing the history of 52 companies that sold branded fishing tackle. 52 trade houses in 52 weeks -- some obscure, some famous, and all available exclusively here on the Fishing for History Blog! If you have any items from the week's entry you'd like to share with us, please send it my way and I'll make sure it makes it on the blog.

For a discussion of what exactly trade tackle is, Click Here. Enjoy the 52 for 52!

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Trade House Tackle, Part 14:

The Tackle of General Merchandise Co. of Milwaukee

This week in 52 for 52 we are featuring one of the many mail order catalog companies that exploded in the post-war era. General Merchandise Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin grew from humble roots into a massive conglomerate that eventually got purchased by one of the great merchants in American history.

Founded in the 1930s, the firm dealt in general merchandise from their home on Milwaukee's famous Water Street. It was founded by David Kritzik and his sons Robert and Stanley. An article published not long after his death in 1989 said "Kritzik founded General Merchandise Co. in the 1930s. The company became one of the largest mail order companies in the world. Kritzik also founded the Treasure Island Discount Store chain as a division of General Merchandise."

Mail order was their bread and butter. By 1939 they issued a catalog of 96 pages containing "charms, games, holiday decorations, notions, and novelties." In 1943, the company advertised it still had stock despite the fact most of the items could not be manufactured due to restrictions of the War Production Board.

Advertisement from Billboard Magazine, May 15, 1943.

After World War II, General Merchandise expanded rapidly. By 1948 the wholesale catalog (No. 83) was 148 pages, and the firm was expanding every year. It was one of the first to go to automated warehousing. As early as 1948, the company was utilizing the earliest IBM 14-10 computer which helped process 400 orders in 15 minutes.

Advertisement from Billboard Magazine May 3, 1947.

By 1960 the firm was running an IBM 650 Tape Ramac system and was doing $40,000,000 in catalog mail orders. Their automated consumer warehousing (spearheaded by Jim Miranda and Stanley Kritzik) was, in fact, so appealing that when retail giant J.C. Penney was looking to enter the discount store market as well as the catalog arena, they saw General Merchandise as the perfect opportunity to do both. In 1962, J.C. Penney purchased the General Merchandise Co. outright for $11 million, rebranding the discount chain of stores as The Treasury. Soon there were Treasury stores across the South. Penneys eventually shuttered them in 1981.

The main reasons Penneys wanted General Merchandise was for their catalog and automated warehouse, which eventually vaulted Penneys into a multi-billion dollar catalog merchant. It is because of General Merchandise Co.'s outstanding automated warehouse system that Penneys shipping operations remained in Milwaukee for decades, employing 6000 workers at its height.

It seems General Merchandise Co. got into fishing tackle in the post-war era. Carl Luckey referenced the firm's 1953 catalog when writing of Arnold lures, three of which appeared in the 1953 GMC catalog. The only piece of the firm's tackle I own is a great ca. 1955 line spool marked "Silver Stream" and "Distributed by General Merchandise Co., Milwaukee, Wis." I don't know if this name was a GMC trade name or not. I have heard of tackle boxes marked with the company's name as well. So while we know they carried a full line of tackle, we don't know exactly how much tackle they branded, or what items that branded tackle might be.

A GMC line spool ca. 1955.

All fishing tackle from this company appears to be rare, so those who own a piece have a nice slice of Wisconsin history and a rare item of trade tackle.

I'd love to hear from anyone with any more info on General Merchandise and its tackle!

-- Dr. Todd

1 comment:

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