THE BUSINESS BOOMER – #3 – Witnessing The Demise Of A Mail Order Icon – Aldens, Inc.


You Boomers will likely remember the old Chicago-based mail order company, Aldens, Inc.  At the time of it’s closing in the early 1980’s it had been in operation since the turn of the last century; well over 90 years.  It was one of the big mail order companies of its day.. along with Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards;  founded in 1899 as the Chicago Mail Order Millinary (just CMO after 1906).  Chicago, being an established transportation hub in the center of the country since the late 1800’s, became the home for the mail order industry, which catered to the farming communities.  Their huge catalogs became common sights around most every home (and outhouse) in rural America.

Aldens former home at 5000 W. Roosevelt Rd. as it appears today

Aldens was located in a 50’s style building at the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Cicero Avenue; within the shadow of the “famous” Western Electric Hawthorne Works (if you had taken business school you’ll remember that the first experiments in production time studies were conducted here.. and the introduction of the term “Hawthorne Effect“).  The building was a combination of huge warehouse space along with three floors of wide open office space.  In those days the rank-in-file clerical staff did not have the cubicle partitions in use in offices today but rather were just desks within the large space, separated by what seemed like miles of file cabinets.

After I closed my store and moved back to Chicago from Rockford, IL, 75 miles northwest of the city, I answered an ad for a customer service supervisor.  This would have been about 1980.  Supervisors’ desks were physically located out on the floor.. and there were about seven of us customer service supervisors under four managers (who had walled cubicle offices).  Each manager was responsible for a specific customer service area… exchanges, adjustments, general correspondence, etc.  This was a union environment and I learned a lot.. but we shall save that part for another post.

I was responsible for the SRF Unit.  It contained 8 ladies (the nearly 100 clerical staff on that floor were female, save for four male supervisors and two managers).  SRF stood for “special reference file”; an odd description for being responsible for handling all customer complaints (in written form) to any level of management, most importantly to the president of the company.  In today’s jargon it was a kind of “level three” or “tier three” customer service complaint level.  We also handled all product liability complaints.  Keep in mind, even though this was 1980 there were no specific customer service phone operators that could do things online with a computer at their desk.  Hence, the entire floor was a maze of paper correspondence from customers.  There were a couple computer terminals scattered about for customer account lookups but this was the time of the old monochrome green screen monitors and the data available was extremely limited.  Even by 1980’s standards I found this rather an archaic and limited environment in which to work.  My people were generally required to make direct customer contact with customers who complained to the president and the other C-suiters.  When I first arrived there we had a single rotary phone.. on my desk.  Each girl rotated each day as the one to walk up to my desk when the phone rang to answer it and direct it to the proper adjuster (per union rules, believe it or not).  While I could dial out to place customer calls myself I was not to answer a phone call.  I was simply amazed.  Six months later when they relocated the SRF unit to another location on the floor each girl got a phone on their desk and computer terminal.  But I had no terminal on my desk.

Given my relative mid-management position in customer service I had a fairly powerful responsibility.  Generally speaking, when customer complaints ended up in my section there was a sincere company effort to “get it handled”; take care of the customer regardless.  Besides the company president, I was the only one in the company who had the authority to call the warehouse and get something shipped on my word alone; hell, even without paperwork.  Not even my boss or his boss had that authority.  If they were working with a customer and had to have something shipped they came to me with the proper paperwork and I called the warehouse.  The warehouse manager never questioned me and I often wondered how he managed to ship stuff out without paperwork.  But it was playing to the idea that if a customer complaint got to my section then they were truly in some level of customer service desparation, usually after having run the gamut of not getting the proper help earlier in the process; either they didn’t receive the item they ordered,  it arrived damaged, they never got a refund for a returned item, or the item caused extended damage (product liability) and we would try to make them happy to avoid litigation.

Sigoloff, about 1989

In 1980 Aldens parent company, Gamble-Skogmo of Minnesota, sold it’s assets, including Aldens, to the Wickes corporation.  At the time Wickes was into furniture and the new Builder’s Emporium on the West Coast.  The buyout was fairly leveraged and Wickes ended up going into Chapter 11.  In comes Sanford C. Sigoloff; “Mr. Chapter 11”, “Ming the Merciless”, and self-admitted toughest man in retailing (some of you West Coasters might remember his commercials for Buiilder’s Emporium).  He was the right guy to save any company on the verge of collapse.  To the employees at Aldens, who were made up of 50% black and Hispanic minorities reflecting the changing neighborhood of the day, many times for generations within one family given the company’s 90 year history… Sigoloff was indeed the “enemy” when news arrived that he and Wickes were putting us out of business.  Just a couple years before there was such hope when Wickes took over that there finally would be some new investment in the company’s infrastructure and management team.

There have been a couple events in my life that I have recognized as being notable wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time events.  The first was that man, in some form or another, has been around for nearly a million years and when I show up on the scene there’s AIDS.  The second… that Aldens has been a mega-mail order business for nearly a century… I show up on the scene and within three years it’s out of business.  Go figger.

But while my employment at Aldens had not been cemented in my way of life I saw that the employees around me.. many having been there for 15+years, were tragically affected.  The company had been around for so long that it became an icon of stable employment with good benefits for generations.  This was a very “mature” workforce in a clerical union environment, and their union couldn’t help them.  It was quite sad.

The actual ceasing of operations was phased.  As people were let go I ended up absorbing other customer service areas until my subordinates numbered about 30.  On the day the company officially closed is the day the remaining rank-in-file and supervisors were let go, including me.  Up to that point many departments closed down in phases and the employees were let go.  The warehouse cleared out it’s inventory through discount sales in the company thrift store; for weeks it was a madhouse of bargain hunters.  The days leading up to the official closing were very sad in retrospect.  The great clerical areas were becoming giant empty spaces.. the desks and furnishings being removed and taken to the warehouse docks for the scrap vendors or sold through the thrift store.  Security was nearly non-existant and many management staff managed to remove anything that might fit in the single box we were allowed to remove that contained our “personal” items; typewriters and desktop items like staplers, etc.

Those 20 files cabinets that contained our customer files… protected for decades… and in at least one incident was responsible for getting my boss fired… product liability cases, fraud customers… archival files…. all drawers were emptied into the center of the floor and the cabinets carted away… and the paper hauled to the dumpsters.

The true tragedy was seeing the sadness with the departing employees.  Prior to the closing Mr. Sigoloff visited the company for what the employees perceived as a measure of gloting over Wickes “raping” us so that they could stay alive.  In reality he came to thank departing employees and tried to personally make sure benefits were intact and severences were in order.  I actually recall the rumor going around that he had a “food taster” (or was it “tester”?)with him to make sure the food he ate from the company cafeteria was not tainted, given the threats to his life.

Aldens had been one of those old school companies.  Executives were gods; they had their own catered dining room.. large office suites, company cars.  The true heyday was likely the 50’s and 60’s as I saw evidence of activity that moved large amounts of merchandise.  Railroad tracks leading up to the docks that hadn’t been used in decades, order picking racks and shelving that allowed for greater efficiency when using roller skates for speed in picking orders in the days before automation.  A lot of indicators of all the activity of years past were noticable everywhere, like outdated and obsolete equipment.  So, by the 1980’s it was apparent anyway that Aldens was just the first in the decline of the old school large mail order houses as a result of changing times.

I did walk away with three old catalogs from the 30’s.  I had spotted these books on a shelf in one of the manager’s offices when I was first hired.  I tried to coerce the manager to letting me have them but she declined.  I outlasted her at the end… and the few of us office scavengers managed to “liberate” some items from her office, and I did get those catalogs.

While I adapted well to finding a new job because I was still young, many ex-employees had a tough time.  One post-script to all this is that I ended up working with some of these folks at the next job I had.  Life goes on.  After having been management purged and divested unprofitable divisions (like Aldens) Wickes Corporation came out of bankruptcy in 1985 after having been at the time the second largest BK proceeding in U.S. history.  They remain in business to this day selling building supplies and new home construction markets.  Sanford C. Sigoloff passed away just last year at 80, after a long and successful career.  Aldens remains just a mail order memory (Montgomery Wards closed its mail order division in 1985, then closed for good in 2001.  Sears, now part of K-Mart, does still have a speciality catalogs but they stopped their traditional “big book” in 1993.)

Want the old catalogs?  Go here.

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28 thoughts on “THE BUSINESS BOOMER – #3 – Witnessing The Demise Of A Mail Order Icon – Aldens, Inc.

  1. Pingback: THE BUSINESS BOOMER – #10 – (Part 1 of 2) – A Supervisor’s Legacy (or, Be Careful For What You Are Remembered For) | Doug's BoomerRants

  2. Very interesting what you find just looking for an original price of a 45 piece dinnerware set from a barely readable sticker on an old box of dishes. My friends mother recently passed away and she herself has health problems and trying to be a good friend , I took on the task of cleaning out the old house so it could be sold. I had no idea what a danting task this would be. I guess when both parents were alive they had a small mail order business in Galt CA. The one room where the business was conducted has taken me 8 days to go thru all the boxes and bags containing toys,music boxes,jewerly boboxetoms,and just household items , alot of them in original boxes. i am trying to get info on the items so I can get her the best price at an estate sale and not “give” the stuff away. Niether one of us has much money, so I can’t afford to buy and old Aldens catalog. Is there any way else I get a price on this dish set ? Thanks, Tom Krouse

    • Well… not likely you’d readily find your particular dish set price given we don’t know what era that set was purchased in the 90 years of the company’s existence. But I do recall that Alden’s merchandise did cater to the same mail order customer demographic as Sears and Wards of the day. Since these were not mail order companies that sold to high income folks it’s not likely your dish set was of any great value, even to collectors. The mail order houses would typically buy their items from mass producers so there would not likely be any fancy manufacturer names. I might recommend that if the manufacturer name is on the dishware then look that up on Ebay and see what similar items are be sold for. Otherwise, just assume a “Wal-Mart” price and see who makes an offer on the day of your sale. 🙂

    • Dishes could be anywhere from $19 to $50 at that time. I used to work at Alden’s for 15 years and was let go at the end. It was a great loss then, but you make lemonade for lemons. eBay or goggle is the best place for today’s value. Maybe you can find someone who really needs his pattern . Good luck!…..v

  3. Reblogged this on david wojdyla's personal blog and commented:
    Wow-oh-wow! Talk about taking a trip down memory lane!! I read every word of this blog post. That’s because my first job out of art school was working in Alden’s In-House Creative Department. I had the world’s best boss. His name was Dick Powell.

  4. Just stumbled across your post and it brought back a lot of memories. I graduated from college in 1981 and my first job was as a copywriter for Alden’s catalogs. I was there until pretty much the end, like you. Also like you, it was bad timing. I show up and the company goes out of business a year later. I still have fond memories of the place and, somewhere, in storage, the spread I did for the last Christmas catalog, featuring Fisher Price toys.

    • Nice to meet you, Rick. Likely at the end we rubbed elbows in the hallways somewhere. 🙂 Although you left a part of your creative side there at an early part of your career. You’re about the third former Aldenite to reply this year. My post must be in a search engine somewhere given I posted that sometime ago. Nonetheless, I hope you’ve done well for yourself since those Aldens days. 🙂

    • I was in the new accounts department and credit. I put in 15 years and hoped to still be there to retire.
      It was a shame but now people only use the computer. Remember the roller skates the runners used
      to go from one end of the building to the next. .?? We were so big we even has our own post office.
      Also we had a barber shop and beauty shop for the management . The computer room was a huge
      airconditioned room with huge machines. I wanted to work there to stay cool. We must have seen
      each other. Do you remember a Beth Myers from Indiana .? Hope all is well with you….v

      • Likely we did also rub elbows at some point toward the end there, although my normal work routine didn’t take me much beyond the customer service department and the thrift store. Being part of management we always had to be in the vicinity to watch over the union clerical staff (Ugh! What a glorious waste of time all that union/management conflict was in those days). By the time I arrived at Aldens all that was left of the place were the vestages of years past when it was more humming with big business; the trappings and perks of upper management were long gone by that time. I don’t recall a Beth Myers offhand… but that was nearly 30 years ago. Glad to hear from another former Aldenite!

        • You really reminded me of those great union complaints!! I had union reps Sandra and la Goldie to worry about
          often. La Goldie always took her 6 months off once a year with an injury so she would get paid. I remember
          being told by hr I would get 2 weeks less time off than a union worker when my son was born. I could
          Never understand that. Hr. Told me management did not have babies only their husbands.heehee,!!
          It is always great to remember the old times. Please note I still have 1share of their stock in case they
          rise again……virginia

  5. Neat blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my blog jump out. Please let me know where you got your design. Thanks dgdgaekecadb

    • Thanks! Actually it’s called “Visual” theme. The version I am using cost $35 a year.. but the general free version is ok as well. I am not a programmer; if I was I’d buy the stand-alone version for the one-time $85 and set up a wordpress website rather than piggyback as I do now. There is an illustration showing this “Visual” theme having a very sharp Time Magazine motif, which I’d love to have. But, alas, we use what brain cells are cheap and available. 🙂

  6. TY for this! – it was more insightful than I expected! What I mean, is this: I was wondering whatever happened to the catalog company my Aunt Margie always had in her linen closet when I visited in the 70s … and you reminded me of when I worked in cust svc (for a medical distribution company) in the very tail end of the 80s.

  7. My mom worked at CMO in the 30s. Where was it then? I believe once while riding the El near Rush Hospital I saw a bldg on Harrison east of the El thjat had written in the limestone..Chicago Mail Order

    • For some earlier history of CMO\Aldens you might check out… http://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/lehman/company.html?company=aldens_inc . Although it details no specific locations it does describe CMO as having retail and phone order locations across the Midwest, and a Chicago location boasting 600,000+ square feet in the glory days of the 30’s and 40’s. If you want a flavor for what the catalog looked like in fall season 1938-39, in the era your mother worked there, check our this site… https://www.etsy.com/listing/122820814/chicago-mail-order-company-catalog-fall .
      Also check out a nice little history of Chicago mail order houses here… http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/779.html . It mentions Spiegel and another alma matter mail order company I worked for, Quill Corporation. Whatever happened to Service Merchandise? They had lots of smaller catalogs and many retail distribution locations locations. They were one of those mail order discount companies that would display their full retail prices in the ad and if you were some “secret” member all you had to do was interpret some numeric code (in other words, just place the decimal two places to the left) for your true “discount” price. I will have to look that up.

  8. Not discussed, but compared with Sears and Montgo-Wards, Aldens had a pizzazz to their product descriptions. I recall my motrohead boyfriend giggling with delight over a description for “Cheery Bomb mufflers – “don’t get caught blowing open pipes in the cold! Get the same sound the legal way with Cherry Bomb mufflers!”
    Did Aldens have greater freedom in wriitng product descriptions?

    • PS – this was a catalog circa 1974 – (loved your desciption of the work environment in this blog)

      • I think Aldens’ marketing department reflected a little more universal appeal and intended “personality” when product descriptions did more than just blandly describe attributes. An interesting sidebar… during the late 60’s and early 70’s my father worked for the printing company that made those Cherry Bomb stickers and decals.

    • I had to laugh when you talked of liberal marketing. We were known for the ladies underwear section which was porno pages for Some people. We got letters asking for copies of them.. Things have changed a lot!……v

      Sent from my iPad

      >

  9. In the early 1960s I was a single mother with 4 children living on public assistance. Christmas was approaching and I had no money to buy gifts for my children. I called Aldens on the phone and told them the truth and explained my problem. Aldens was kind enough to give me a 50,00 credit limit and I was able to order inexpensive gifts for my children. Didn’t matter what their worth was because to children a toy is a toy. However I was so grateful and to this day I think about their kindness to me and my family. I made sure to pay back every cent and continued to order from them even after I went to work and got us off the dole and began a very successful career. I was not aware they are still around but all I will say is they were a company with a heart.

    • Even by today’s standard that was indeed quite compassionate of Aldens’ staff in the day to do that for you… and you were a great mom to try and make a happy Christmas for your kids. 🙂 While it was 20 years later when I was employed there, there were some interesting vestages of kindness still going around. As an employee, in spite of being part of management, we worked in a clerical union environment that did not usually spawn great acts of kindness in the workplace given the constant adversarial posturing between the union and management (I vowed that would be the last time I ever worked with a unionized company), I do recall a couple times when kindness was exhibited to customers though. Of note was an instance where apparently some young fellow, a recently divorced customer, had purchased a rather large couch for his living room when still married. He was not a local guy to Chicago; I think Iowa. The divorce left him with a child and more than a bit cash poor so he decided to return the couch for a refund. I believe it was in the vicinity of about $300. That was the early 1980’s; back then that was a fair amount of cash, especially in his financial shape. He loaded up the couch into a U-Haul. His plan was to return the couch and use the refund money to help pay for his ticket home. Cutting it close in risking any number of things that could delay or thwart his plans along the way, he decided to head out… not bothering to call Aldens first. By time he arrived it was later in the workday when he approached a floor salesperson inside the outlet store, not the place to handle exchanges or refunds given we were only a catalog company. He apparently told a convincing story and the outlet store sales person ended up having the customer meet with someone from our customer service department. He was escorted up to the department (never done)… and I recall watching from my desk (no cubes in those days) and seeing the flutter of managers moving about with this fellow. After a while I think one of the VP’s even showed up to converse with the fellow. As it turned out… his couch return did not qualify for a refund since it was well out of the return time frame. That meant the fellow had no means to finance his trip home. In other words, he was stuck in the Aldens customer service department. It was apparent to all that this young man, given all his recent bad luck, was also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, which made his condition all the more sadder. After all the dust settled management did authorize a full return of the couch, but given it was so late in the day the money would not be available until the next morning. In the meantime the kid had no place to go. So, the company paid for his taxi, a meal, and a motel room overnight (and taxi back to Aldens the next morning), and paid for his bus ticket back to Iowa… on top of the full cash refund for the couch.
      If you scan the recent reply posts above you will see a reply from a gentleman, Rich, who I acknowledged as remembering. He was one of the three department managers at the time and might remember this story. The Lord works in mysterious ways. 🙂

  10. Wow…wish I saw this Blog before. I worked at Alden’s 1974 thru 1978, as a Re-Buyer for Electronics. It was my first real job. Almost 42 years later I am still in Supply Chain, living the dream in Spokane Valley, Wa. My Aunt Grace Zolecke, was Director of Fashion (I believe for women’s clothing). Grace was with Aldens for many years and only left when the company closed it’s doors.
    Grace passed 15 years ago, however much of her ‘memorabilia was still in dads home, which I recently had to sell. I have pictures of Grace with Twiggy and Maggie Daly (she was a Chicago Newspaper columnist many years ago). I also found one of Grace’s Alden’s business Cards, which I kept. Grace was a pioneer of sorts, she was a executive in the 50’s when very few women were executives. I had great admiration for her. This is an opportunity for me to express that. blessings

    • Thanks for your reply, Nick! Strangely this Aldens post generates the most comments. Seems to be a lot of folk out there who still remember. I’m sorry to say that I don’t recall your Aunt’s name in spite of the fact that she was an executive there. Although, fashion was seldom a generator of customer service issues. 🙂 Too bad we didn’t get to have a chance to pick her brain for the early memories. Thanks again for posting.. and if you learn any more tidbits feel free to pass them on in here. 🙂

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