I recently wrote a book, Vintage Notions, on the sewing teachings of the early 20th century and in particular the writings of my muse, Mary Brooks Picken. I learned a lot about the history of the sewing business and found it fascinating to see how our favorite manufacturers from today, like Coats & Clark, marketed their business almost 100 years ago. One of my favorite advertising stories involve Coats & Clark, Mary Brooks Picken’s husband advertiser G. Lynn Sumner, and the animals of the Spool Pets.
Coats and Clark had a problem: They needed to sell more black and white thread. But how to ramp up sales of something that is already a staple in the sewing box? They realized that most consumers were purchasing size 50 All Purpose Thread, as opposed to taking advantage of the 10 different thread sizes available. Working with Sumner, they realized that they needed to educate the consumer to the importance of using the right size of thread for each sewing project, thus the consumer purchasing more thread. A Thread Chart was created to show the purpose and types of fabric for which each size of thread was created, a concept still being used today. But how to disseminate this information in an interesting and dramatic way?
The answer came from a window shopping expedition. Stopping in front of a toy store, G. Lynn Sumner saw an animal toy consisting of three parts: a square block for the body with the head and the tail as two flat pieces mounted at the front and back. The light bulb went off… what if you could make the same sort of animal, but with a thread spool? Not one animal, but all kinds of animals, each made with a different spool size. For instance, you would make a kitten with a tiny size 200 spool and a large cow with a size 8 spool.
The Spool Pets were born. There would be 6 pets printed in color on folded cards. Children would collect the cards and when they had the right size spool, could cut out and create the animals. What the concept needed now was a fun jingle. For that they went to John Martin, creator of the famed John Martin’s Book, a monthly children’s magazine full of whimsical verse and stories. Martin brought the pets to life with beautiful illustrations and catchy rhymes.
So, why were they creating a children’s campaign when the hope was to sell thread to the mother? As we know, children can be very powerful sales agents. The goal was for the children to want the pets and need the accompanying thread spools. On the reverse side of every Spool Pet card were reasons why the right size of thread was important and the purpose for which the size with that particular card should be used, which educated the end consumer on proper thread usage and promoted the buying of more thread.
The Spool Pets were offered in school publications and newspapers for distribution by mail and soon kids all over the country were clamoring to make spool pets, while thread sales rose. Soon a second round of animals were created, the Spool Zoo, and distributed through magazines like John Martin’s Book. These animals were also “hidden” in other Coat’s products, like their bias trim packets. This way the customer would need to buy the trim and the spool to make the animals.
As a collector of sewing notions and magazines, I had run across the Spool Pets a number of times. It was during my research for Vintage Notions that I learned the whole story through G. Lynn Sumners biography. I was fascinated to learn the history behind these fun little creatures that kept popping up in my vintage publications. I have collected many of the original Spool Pets cards and created digital images of them, which can be used in numerous projects. Of course, you can print out the animals and create your own Spool Pets, but why not try something different? Print the images out on iron-on transfer sheets or printable fabric and create pillows and a wall hanging for a nursery.
Today I want to share with you a project for using the images on a child’s onesie or t-shirt. This would make an adorable one-of-a-kind gift for a baby or toddler.
Click here to download the full pdf instructions. Enjoy!