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..."
Imagine being able to buy some of the delightful crafts, dishes, vases and storage units shown in the pages of Martha Stewart Living magazine. That was the thinking behind a mail-order catalog business that the company launched to help supply the demand from consumers. Everything from furniture to craft supplies, preserves and confections to gardening clogs, wreaths and cookie-cutters were on offer. The venture started off small. Several issues of the magazine that year were accompanied by mail-order inserts called "Martha By Mail." The demand was so high, however, that Martha soon realized she would have to develop an in-house merchandising team to design and create new products for this special division of the company. When marthastewart.com launched the following year, the Martha by Mail retail component was added to the online fold, which not only facilitated the ordering process, but also widened the market.
In 1998, "Martha by Mail" was strong enough to become an official catalog business; consumers could subscribe to the catalog and order any number of goods featured on its pages or online at marthabymail.com. What made the catalog so unique was the high quality of the product and the unique designs that were simply not available anywhere else. Many of the pieces were recreations of Martha's original antiques, others were new designs that were filtered through Martha's personal tastes as a guide to their level of quality and appeal. There was an air of exclusivity, rarity and even community in the Martha by Mail venture.
The division was initially headed up by Fritz Karch, a style editor and the senior vice president in charge of product development. (As Martha by Mail expanded, Fritz moved into an editorial position at the magazine. Many of us remember him as the Collecting editor!) Fritz assembled a team of eighteen 'hunters and gatherers' to create, discover and develop new products for the catalog and the online store.
Among the first products to be issued were craft and decorating kits that were designed to make it simpler for readers of Martha Stewart Living magazine to create the projects shown in its pages. Shown above are the beautiful instruction booklets for a lip-balm kit and a cake decorating kit: each came with all the supplies necessary to carry out the projects with confidence.
Martha and her merchandising team partnered with some of the world's leading makers and manufacturers of fine household items from around the world to create the products they designed: L.E. Smith, Mosser, Frankoma, Robinson Ronsbottom, NordicWare, Wilton, Ateco, Lloyd Flanders, Sterling China, Broggi, Chiarugi, Krosnos, Steiff, Wedgwood, Juliska, Janaer Glas, Rainer, Michael Bonne Copperworks, Fenton, Bernhardt Furniture, Eleni's, Niman Ranch and CK Products were just some of the silversmiths, food producers, foundries, glassworks, ceramicists and furniture makers that provided products for the catalog. From England to Germany to Italy to Japan, and all across the United States, Martha by Mail brought together a world of tradition and craftsmanship that was unparalleled in the online-catalog business at the time.
My friend David is an avid Martha by Mail collector and he has many of the prized items so many of us came to love, including the caramel-coloured glass cake stands by L.E. Smith, Fireking Jadeite, and a plethora of copper cookie cutter sets in myriad shapes and sizes. These are his images, above. Visit his blog to learn more about Martha by Mail.
While the business was successful for several years, its greatest challenge was maintaining a profit. It was an expensive project to run and it proved difficult for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to oversee not only the rapid design of products, with the promise of new offerings in each month's catalog, but also to manage its delivery processes. The catalog business was closed in the summer of 2004, which was also (not coincidentally) the summer Martha was sentenced to prison.
For collectors of the Martha Stewart brand, there is nothing more valuable than the products that were featured in the pages of the "Martha by Mail" catalogs. If the products are sealed in their original packaging, the items can fetch two or three times what they originally sold for. (Of particular interest to collectors are the cookie-cutter sets, the unique cake molds, cake stands and baking pans, the jadeite collections and some of the dinnerware and serveware sets.)
In 2002, when it became apparent that criminal charges would likely be laid against Martha Stewart the company renamed the catalog to "Martha Stewart The Catalog For Living".
By 2004 and the impending trial of Martha Stewart, her name was significantly downsized on the covers. While the design may have changed, the products remained excellent!