DECEMBER 3: MARTHA BY MAIL
In the June 1995 issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, in her monthly letter to readers, Martha made an announcement:
"During the summer, we will use a small portion of our time on Lifetime to introduce you to some of the products we are producing in response to your requests. We are doing this to help you obtain items you have found interesting and desirable, such as a collection of peony plants or a wonderful cake decorating kit. Initially many of these test products will be in very limited supply, so be sure to order quickly to avoid disappointment. As our business grows and we learn more about the production and merchandising of these items, we will keep you informed. Please let us know the kinds of things you want and need..."
This brief introduction in 1995 was the beginning of what would eventually become known as "Martha by Mail" - a mail-order catalog business that would grow to become an online boutique where readers of Martha's magazine could buy many of the beautiful items and supplies shown in its pages.
The response from readers was phenomenal and by 1996, the first Martha by Mail insert was included in the magazine. It contained a wide range of kits, gifts, tools for the home and garden, vases, flower bulbs, aprons, cookie cutters and many more items.
The following June, in 1996, Martha's letter was even more resolute about the products she wanted to bring to her newly-founded catalog and offered this manifesto about their purpose:
"First, our products must enable us to fully accomplish a project or task inspired by the magazine or TV show. Second, Martha by Mail kits must come with full how-to booklets and other vital information to allow you to take full advantage of the projects. Third, the products must turn dreamers into doers. Last, quality is our standard bearer..."
It was the quality and uniqueness of the products that fans flocked to. The products were not found anywhere else and the buyer felt almost like an insider, browsing the prop rooms at the magazine or through Martha's personal pantry. The inspiration was warm and the experience was very boutique. Customers would fill out their request forms (very traditional by today's technological standards) and mail them in with their payment. A few weeks later, their packages would arrive in beautiful boxes emblazoned with the Martha by Mail logo, a large "M" with a bee and hive motif.
There were 69 catalogs in all, plus three magazine inserts, bearing the Martha by Mail imprint. Click here to see them all!
By 1997, monthly Martha by Mail catalogs were being mailed out to consumers with more and more products on offer. In 1998, the business moved online with its own website, marthabymail.com. Now it was even easier for shoppers to peruse the products and have them delivered to their homes.
Martha Stewart Living was handling everything, from the design of the products to the shipment of them. This eventually proved to be too costly for the company to maintain and the catalog division was closed at the end of the fiscal year in 2005.
Today, there is nothing in the Martha Stewart lexicon more collectible than Martha by Mail items. Even the catalogs themselves can fetch between $30 and $50 a copy. (This is astonishing, considering the catalogs were mailed out for free!) The most collectible pieces are those that are most rare, of course, and those that are in the best condition or in their original boxes. Martha by Mail collaborated with some of the most respected manufacturers in the world to make their wares, including Wedgwood, Burleigh, Steiff and Waterford. It is the cookie cutter sets, however, that seem to have the most demand. Where else will you find a giant box filled with copper cookie cutters inspired by the animals of Noah's Ark, or giant ones in the shapes of moons and stars.
No one did it better. For fans, Martha by Mail is one of the most sorely missed ventures.
The base of a beautiful whiteware mixing bowl from the Martha by Mail collection. From the home of collector David Pantoja.