As sellers, we have offered layaway to our customers for many years to help in spreading the cost of vintage pieces over multiple instalments, making them affordable for more people.
Many of us think of layaway as a modern concept developed by vintage sellers to help customers weather the increasing prices of the best vintage pieces. However, like many things, layaway is not at all a modern invention, but more a rediscovery of a practice that was commonly used in the past. It wasn’t until I was doing some research for another blog post (look out for more on that coming soon!) that I stumbled upon the 1937 advert for Butler’s Department Store’s Lay-a-way Plan below.1
And there it was, the exact same layaway concept we use today, all the way back in 1937!
Look at the clever marketing of it, choose your coat now, pay a small deposit and then regular instalments and receive the fully paid off coat in winter when you actually need it. As simple as that…don’t have a coat lying around the house for several months, just because now is the time when the most choice is available. Instead Butler’s will store it for you whilst you pay it off.
We love that this has nothing to do with lacking availability of money but with sheer convenience. This is even more fascinating when viewed in its historical context.
1930s America was marked by the Great Depression that started with the Wall Street crash in October of 1929, which brought the Roaring Twenties to an abrupt end. The reverberations of the crash were felt across the world for the next 10 years. The Great Depression was the most significant economic downturn of the 20th century and led to company failures, mass unemployment, wage reductions and a dramatic increase in foreclosures. All of this understandably resulted in reduced household incomes and consumer spending. Despite the many reforms passed into law as part of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the mid-1930s to stabilise the economy and provide social benefits to ordinary Americans, a sharp recession ensued in 1937. This recession reversed many of the production improvements of the previous years and prolonged the Great Depression until the end of the decade.
When viewed against this historical background, the Butler’s layaway plan appears all the more relevant, trying to give Americans hope of a better future to come whilst allowing them to spend little and often to afford those little luxuries that everyone craved after nearly a decade of economic woes.
However, Butler’s were by no means the only store offering layaway plans in the 1930s. These offerings greatly increased in popularity during the 1930s to enable consumers to continue to spend rather than putting off purchases for lack of funds.
2 3 4
In fact, it appears that the option to use a lawaway plan became a byline of many an advert in the 1930s.
So, you would be forgiven for thinking that the layaway concept was conceived during the Great Depression of the 1930s and indeed, many people believe this to be the case. However with some further research, we were able to find advertisements featuring layaway plans for clothing as far back as 1909 and for jewellery even earlier than that in 1901. 7
The emergence of the concept at this time as 1909 represented another period of economic uncertainty following the stock market crash brought on by the Knickerbocker crisis of 1907.
As economic times improved, layaway plans persisted in their existence, however their marketing altered. Stores started to advertise their layaway offerings as a convenient solution for customers, particularly around the holiday period. Marketing focussed around purchasing early when customers would have the most wide ranging choice, but paying when the items are actually wanted. This, in a way, set the tone for the advertising of these plans over the coming decades by shifting the focus away from affordability and towards convenience, choice and value.
Whilst layaway plans were a great offering for customers, they also had a number of advantages for the stores involved. Primarily, they allowed them to bring seasonal collections forward to more convenient times for the stores and to support budgeting and business cash flow. This may very well be the reason why layaway plans continued to be offered in more buoyant economic times.
The effectiveness of layaway plans in broadening stores’ customer bases can be seen by the fact that they persisted and actually increased in popularity throughout the Roaring Twenties.
Layaway plans continued to be provided by stores for several decades to come, offering their customers the instant gratification of purchases combined with the ability to spread the payments over multiple smaller instalments. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the proliferation of credit card use offered an even more instant ability to purchase items with little initial pain, that layaway plans eventually became extinct.
As vintage sellers, we are pleased to be able to revive this time tested practice and allow our customers to once again benefit from the availability of layaway plans, which allow you the convenience of purchasing at any time by paying in instalments without affecting your credit rating.
Copyright (c) Marie-Christin Coomber, July 2022
1 The Daily Herald; Provo, Utah; Sunday, August 22, 1937
2 Dayton Daily News; Dayton, Ohio; Wednesday, August 1, 1934
3 The Journal News; Hamilton, Ohio; Wednesday, March 11, 1936
4 Dayton Daily News; Dayton, Ohio; Wednesday, Septeber 28, 1938
5 The Spokesman-Review; Spokane, Washington; Sunday, December 31, 1939
6 The St. Joseph Journal; St. Joseph, Missouri; Friday September 1, 1939
7 The North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune; North Platte, Nebraska; Tuesday, December 17, 1901
8 The Star Press; Muncie, Indiana; Wednesday, November 17, 1909
9 The Star Press; Muncie, Indiana; Friday, May 20, 1910
10 The Ogden Standard; Ogden, Utah; Thursday, November 28, 1912
11 The Oklahoma City Times; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Saturday, September 18, 1920
12 The Oklahoma City Times; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Saturday, September 3, 1921