Malcolm Gladwell
December 6, 1999
Clicks and Mortar
Don't believe the Internet hype: the real 
E-commerce revolution happened off-line.


     At the turn of this century, a Missouri farmer named D.Ward
King invented a device that came to be known, in his honor, as
the King Road Drag. It consisted of two wooden rails that lay
side by side about three feet apart, attached by a series of
wooden braces. If you pulled the King Drag along a muddy road,
it had the almost magical effect of smoothing out the ruts and
molding the dirt into a slight crown, so that the next time it
rained the water would drain off to the sides. In 1906, when
King demonstrated his device to a group of farmers in
Wellsville, Kansas, the locals went out and built a hundred King
Drags of their own within the week, which makes sense,
because if you had asked a farmer at the turn of the century
what single invention could make his life easier he would
probably have wanted something that improved the roads. They
were, in the late nineteenth century, a disaster: of the country's
two million miles of roads, fewer than a hundred and fifty
thousand had been upgraded with gravel or oil. The rest were
dirt. They turned into rivers of mud when it was raining, and
hardened into an impassable sea of ruts when it was not. A trip
to church or to go shopping was an exhausting ordeal for many
farmers. At one point in the early part of this century,
economists estimated that it cost more to haul a bushel of
wheat along ten miles of American dirt road than it did to ship it
across the ocean from New York to Liverpool.

     The King Road Drag was a simple invention that had the
effect of reducing the isolation of the American farmer, and soon
that simple invention led to all kinds of dramatic changes. Ever
since the Post Office was established, for example, farmers had
to make the difficult trek into town to pick up their mail. In the
eighteen-nineties, Congress pledged that mail would be
delivered free to every farmer's home, but only so long as rural
communities could demonstrate that their roads were good
enough for a mailman to pass by every day--which was a Catch-22 
neatly resolved by the King Road Drag. And once you had
rural free delivery and good roads, something like parcel post
became inevitable. Through the beginning of the century, all
packages that weighed more than four pounds were carried by
private-express services, which were unreliable and expensive
and would, outside big cities, deliver only to a set of depots. But
if the mail was being delivered every day to rural dwellers, why
not have the mailman deliver packages, too? In 1912, Congress
agreed, and with that the age of the mail-order house began:
now a farmer could look through a catalogue that contained
many thousands of products and have them delivered right to
his door. Smaller companies, with limited resources, had a way
to bypass the middleman and reach customers all over the
country. You no longer needed to sell to the consumer through
actual stores made of bricks and mortar. You could build a
virtual store!

     In the first fifteen years of this century, in other words,
America underwent something of a revolution. Before rural free
delivery, if you didn't live in a town--and most Americans
didn't--it wasn't really practical to get a daily newspaper. It was
only after daily delivery that the country became "wired," in the
sense that if something happened in Washington or France or
the Congo one evening, everyone would know about it by the
next morning.  In 1898, mailmen were delivering about
eighteen thousand pieces of mail per rural route. Within five
years, that number had more than doubled, and by 1929 it had
topped a hundred thousand.

     Here was the dawn of the modern consumer economy--an
economy in which information moved freely around the country,
in which retailers and consumers, buyers and sellers became
truly connected for the first time. "You may go to an average
store, spend valuable time and select from a limited stock at
retail prices," the fall 1915 Sears, Roebuck catalogue boasted,
"or have our Big Store of World Wide Stocks at Economy Prices
come to you in this catalog--the Modern Way." By the turn of
the century, the Sears catalogue had run to over a thousand
pages, listing tens of thousands of items in twenty-four
departments: music, buggies, stoves, carriage hardware, drugs,
vehicles, shoes, notions, sewing machines, cloaks, sporting
goods, dry goods, hardware, groceries, furniture and baby
carriages, jewelry, optical goods, books, stereopticons, men's
clothing, men's furnishings, bicycles, gramophones, and
harnesses. Each page was a distinct site, offering a reader in-
depth explanations and descriptions well beyond what he would
expect if he went to a store, talked to a sales clerk, and
personally examined a product. To find all those products, the
company employed scores of human search engines--"missionaries" 
who, the historians Boris Emmet and John Jeuck write, were "said 
to travel constantly, inspecting the stocks of virtually all 
retail establishments in the country, conversing with the public 
at large to discover their needs and desires, and buying goods 
'of all kinds and descriptions'" in order to post them on the 
World Wide Stock.

     The catalogue, as economists have argued, represented a
radical transformation in the marketing and distribution of
consumer goods. But, of course, that transformation would not
have been possible unless you had parcel post, and you couldn't
have had parcel post unless you had rural free delivery, and you
could not have had rural free delivery without good roads, and
you would not have had good roads without D. Ward King. So
what was the genuine revolution? Was it the World Wide Stock
or was it the King Road Drag?


     We are now, it is said, in the midst of another business
revolution. "This new economy represents a tectonic upheaval in
our commonwealth, a far more turbulent reordering than mere
digital hardware has produced," Kevin Kelly, a former executive
editor of Wired, writes in his book "New Rules for the New
Economy." In "Cyber Rules," the software entrepreneurs Thomas
M. Siebel and Pat House compare the advent of the Internet to
the invention of writing, the appearance of a metal currency in
the eastern Mediterranean several thousand years ago, and the
adoption of the Arabic zero. "Business," Bill Gates states flatly in
the opening sentence of "Business @ the Speed of Thought," "is
going to change more in the next ten years than it has in the
last fifty."

    The revolution of today, however, turns out to be as difficult
to define as the revolution of a hundred years ago. Kelly, for
example, writes that because of the Internet "the new economy
is about communication, deep and wide." Communication, he
maintains, "is not just a sector of the economy. Communication
is the economy." But which is really key--how we communicate,
or what we communicate? Gates, meanwhile, is preoccupied
with the speed of interaction in the new economy. Going digital,
he writes, will "shatter the old way of doing business" because it
will permit almost instant communication. Yet why is the critical
factor how quickly I communicate some decision or message to
you--as opposed to how long it takes me to make that decision,
or how long it takes you to act on it? Gates called his book
"Business @ the Speed of Thought," but thought is a slow and
messy thing. Computers do nothing to speed up our thought
process; they only make it a lot faster to communicate our
thoughts once we've had them. Gates should have called his
book "Business @ the Speed of Typing." In "Growing Up
Digital," Don Tapscott even goes so far as to claim that the rise
of the Internet has created an entirely new personality among
the young. N-Geners, as Tapscott dubs the generation, have a
different set of assumptions about work than their parents have.
They thrive on collaboration, and many find the notion of a boss
somewhat bizarre....They are driven to innovate and have a
mindset of immediacy requiring fast results. They love hard
work because working, learning, and playing are the same thing
to them. They are creative in ways their parents could only
imagine....Corporations who hire them should be prepared to
have their windows and walls shaken.

     Let's leave aside the fact that the qualities Tapscott
ascribes to the Net Generation--energy, a "mindset of
immediacy," creativity, a resistance to authority, and (of all
things) sharp differences in outlook from their parents--could
safely have been ascribed to every upcoming generation in
history. What's interesting here is the blithe assumption, which
runs through so much of the thinking and talking about the
Internet, that this new way of exchanging information must be
at the root of all changes now sweeping through our economy
and culture. In these last few weeks before Christmas, as the
country's magazines and airways become crowded with
advertisements for the fledgling class of dot coms, we may be
tempted to concur. But is it possible that, once again, we've
been dazzled by the catalogues and forgotten the roads?


     The world's largest on-line apparel retailer is Lands' End, in
Wisconsin. Lands' End began in 1963 as a traditional mail-order
company. It mailed you its catalogue, and you mailed back your
order along with a check. Then, in the mid-nineteen-eighties,
Lands' End, like the rest of the industry, reinvented itself. It
mailed you its catalogue, and you telephoned an 800 number
with your order and paid with a credit card. Now Lands' End has
moved on line. In the first half of this year, E-commerce sales
accounted for ten per cent of Lands' End's total business, up two
hundred and fifty per cent from last year. What has this move to
the Web meant?

     Lands' End has its headquarters in the tiny farming town of
Dodgeville, about an hour's drive west of Madison, through the
rolling Midwestern countryside. The main Lands' End campus is
composed of half a dozen modern, low-slung buildings,
clustered around a giant parking lot. In one of those buildings,
there is a huge open room filled with hundreds of people sitting
in front of computer terminals and wearing headsets. These are
the people who take your orders. Since the bulk of Lands' End's
business is still driven by the catalogue and the 800 number,
most of those people are simply talking on the phone to
telephone customers. But a growing percentage of the reps are
now part of the company's Internet team, serving people who
use the Lands' End Live feature on the company's Web site.
Lands' End Live allows customers, with the click of a mouse, to
start a live chat with a Lands' End representative or get a rep to
call them at home, immediately.

     On a recent fall day, a Lands' End Live user--let's call her
Betty--was talking to one of the company's customer-service
reps, a tall, red-haired woman named Darcia. Betty was on the
Lands' End Web site to buy a pair of sweatpants for her young
daughter, and had phoned to ask a few questions.

     "What size did I order last year?" Betty asked. "I think I
need one size bigger." Darcia looked up the record of Betty's
purchase. Last year, she told Betty, she bought the same pants
in big- kid's small.

     "I'm thinking medium or large," Betty said. She couldn't

     "The medium is a ten or a twelve, really closer to a twelve,"
Darcia told her. "I'm thinking if you go to a large, it will throw
you up to a sixteen, which is really big."

     Betty agreed. She wanted the medium. But now she had a
question about delivery. It was Thursday morning, and she
needed the pants by Tuesday. Darcia told her that the order
would go out on Friday morning, and with U.P.S. second-day air
she would almost certainly get it by Tuesday. They briefly
discussed spending an extra six dollars for the premium, next-
day service, but Darcia talked Betty out of it. It was only an
eighteen-dollar order, after all.

     Betty hung up, her decision made, and completed her order
on the Internet. Darcia started an on-line chat with a woman
from the East Coast. Let's call her Carol. Carol wanted to buy
the forty-nine-dollar attaché case but couldn't decide on a color.
Darcia was partial to the dark olive, which she said was "a
professional alternative to black." Carol seemed convinced, but
she wanted the case monogrammed and there were eleven
monogramming styles on the Web-site page.

     "Can I have a personal suggestion?" she wrote.

     "Sure," Darcia typed back. "Who is the case for?"

     "A conservative psychiatrist," Carol replied.

     Darcia suggested block initials, in black. Carol agreed, and
sent the order in herself on the Internet. "All right," Darcia said,
as she ended the chat. "She feels better." The exchange had
taken twenty-three minutes.

     Notice that in each case the customer filled out the actual
order herself and sent it in to the Lands' End computer
electronically--which is, of course, the great promise of 
E-commerce. But that didn't make some human element
irrelevant. The customers still needed Darcia for advice on
colors, and styles, or for reassurance that their daughter was a
medium and not a large. In each case, the sale was closed
because that human interaction allayed the last-minute
anxieties and doubts that so many of us have at the point of
purchase. It's a mistake, in other words, to think that E-commerce 
will entirely automate the retail process. It just turns reps 
from order-takers into sales advisers.

     "One of the big fallacies when the Internet came along was
that you could get these huge savings by eliminating customer-
service costs," Bill Bass, the head of E-commerce for Lands'
End, says. "People thought the Internet was self-service, like a
gas station. But there are some things that you cannot program
a computer to provide. People will still have questions, and what
you get are much higher-level questions. Like, 'Can you help me
come up with a gift?' And they take longer."

     Meanwhile, it turns out, Internet customers at Lands' End
aren't much different from 800-number customers. Both groups
average around a hundred dollars an order, and they have the
same rate of returns. Call volume on the 800 numbers is
highest on Mondays and Tuesdays, from ten in the morning until
one in the afternoon. So is E-commerce volume. In the long
term, of course, the hope is that the Web site will reduce
dependence on the catalogue, and that would be a huge
efficiency. Given that last year the company mailed two hundred
and fifty million catalogues, costing about a dollar each, the
potential savings could be enormous. And yet customers' orders
on the Internet spike just after a new catalogue arrives at
people's homes in exactly the same way that the 800-number
business spikes just after the catalogue arrives. E-commerce
users, it seems, need the same kind of visual, tangible
prompting to use Lands' End as traditional customers. If Lands'
End did all its business over the Internet, it would still have to
send out something in the mail--a postcard or a bunch of fabric
swatches or a slimmed-down catalogue. "We thought going into
E-commerce it would be a different business," Tracy Schmit, an
Internet analyst at the company, says. "But it's the same
business, the same patterns, the same contacts. It's an
extension of what we already do."


     Now consider what happens on what retailers call the
"back end"--the customer-fulfillment side--of Lands' End's
operations. Say you go to the company's Web site one afternoon
and order a blue 32-16 oxford-cloth button-down shirt and a
pair of size-9 Top-Siders. At midnight, the computer at Lands'
End combines your order with all the other orders for the day: it
lumps your shirt order with the hundred other orders, say, that
came in for 32-16 blue oxford-cloth button-downs, and lumps
your shoe order with the fifty other size-9 Top-Sider orders of
the day. It then prints bar codes for every item, so each of
those hundred shirts is assigned a sticker listing the location of
blue oxford 32-16 shirts in the warehouse, the order that it
belongs to, shipping information, and instructions for things like

     The next morning, someone known as a "picker" finds the
hundred oxford- cloth shirts in that size, yours among them,
and puts a sticker on each one, as does another picker in the
shoe area with the fifty size-9 Top-Siders. Each piece of
merchandise is placed on a yellow plastic tray along an
extensive conveyor belt, and as the belt passes underneath a
bar-code scanner the computer reads the label and assembles
your order. The tray with your shirt on it circles the room until it
is directly above a bin that has been temporarily assigned to
you, and then tilts, sending the package sliding downward.
Later, when your shoes come gliding along on the belt, the
computer reads the bar code on the box and sends the shoe box
tumbling into the same bin. Then the merchandise is packed
and placed on another conveyor belt, and a bar-code scanner
sorts the packages once again, sending the New York-bound
packages to the New York-bound U.P.S. truck, the Detroit
packages to the Detroit truck, and so on.

     It's an extraordinary operation. When you stand in the
middle of the Lands' End warehouse--while shirts and pants and
sweaters and ties roll by at a rate that, at Christmas, can reach
twenty-five thousand items an hour--you feel as if you're in
Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The warehouses are enormous
buildings--as big, in all, as sixteen football fields--and the
conveyor belts hang from the ceiling like giant pieces of
industrial sculpture. Every so often, a belt lurches to a halt, and
a little black scanner box reads the bar code and sends the
package off again, directing it left or right or up or down, onto
any number of separate sidings and overpasses. In the middle
of one of the buildings, there is another huge room where
thousands of pants, dangling from a jumbo-sized railing like a
dry cleaner's rack, are sorted by color (so sewers don't have to
change thread as often) and by style, then hemmed, pressed,
bagged, and returned to the order-fulfillment chain--all within a

     This system isn't unique to Lands' End. If you went to L. L.
Bean or J.Crew or, for that matter, a housewares-catalogue
company like Pottery Barn, you'd find the same kind of system.
It's what all modern, automated warehouses look like, and it is
as much a part of E-commerce as a Web site. In fact, it is the
more difficult part of E-commerce. Consider the problem of the
Christmas rush. Lands' End records something like thirty per
cent of its sales during November and December. A well-
supported Web site can easily handle those extra hits, but for
the rest of the operation that surge in business represents a
considerable strain. Lands' End, for example, aims to respond to
every phone call or Lands' End Live query within twenty
seconds, and to ship out every order within twenty-four hours of
its receipt. In August, those goals are easily met. But, to
maintain that level of service in November and December,
Lands' End must hire an extra twenty-six hundred people,
increasing its normal payroll by more than fifty per cent. Since
unemployment in the Madison area is hovering around one per
cent, this requires elaborate planning: the company charters
buses to bring in students from a nearby college, and has made
a deal in the past with a local cheese factory to borrow its
workforce for the rush. Employees from other parts of the
company are conscripted to help out as pickers, while others act
as "runners" in the customer-service department, walking up
and down the aisles and jumping into any seat made vacant by
someone taking a break. Even the structure of the warehouse is
driven, in large part, by the demands of the holiday season.
Before the popularization of the bar code, in the early nineteen-
eighties, Lands' End used what is called an "order picking"
method. That meant that the picker got your ticket, then went
to the shirt room and got your shirt, and the shoe room and got
your shoes, then put your order together. If another shoe-and-
shirt order came over next, she would have to go back to the
shirts and back to the shoes all over again. A good picker under
the old system could pick between a hundred and fifty and a
hundred and seventy-five pieces an hour. The new technique,
known as "batch picking," is so much more efficient that a good
picker can now retrieve between six hundred and seven hundred
pieces an hour. Without bar codes, if you placed an order in
mid-December, you'd be hard pressed to get it by Christmas.

     None of this is to minimize the significance of the
Internet. Lands' End has a feature on its Web site which allows
you to try clothes on a virtual image of yourself--a feature that
is obviously not possible with a catalogue. The Web site can list
all the company's merchandise, whereas a catalogue has space
to list only a portion of the inventory. But how big a role does
the Internet ultimately play in E-commerce? It doesn't much
affect the cost of running a customer-service department. It
reduces catalogue costs, but it doesn't eliminate traditional
marketing, because you still have to remind people of your Web
site. You still need to master batch picking. You still need the
Willy Wonka warehouse. You still need dozens of sewers in the
inseaming department, and deals with the local cheese factory,
and buses to ship in students every November and December.
The head of operations for Lands' End is a genial man in his
fifties named Phil Schaecher, who works out of a panelled office
decorated with paintings of ducks which overlooks the
warehouse floor. When asked what he would do if he had to
choose between the two great innovations of the past twenty
years--the bar code, which has transformed the back end of his
business, and the Internet, which is transforming the front
end--Schaecher paused, for what seemed a long time. "I'd take
the Internet," he said finally, toeing the line that all retailers
follow these days. Then he smiled. "But of course if we lost bar
codes I'd retire the next day."


     On a recent fall morning, a young woman named Charlene
got a call from a shipping agent at a firm in Oak Creek,
Wisconsin. Charlene is a dispatcher with a trucking company in
Akron, Ohio, called Roberts Express. She sits in front of a
computer with a telephone headset on, in a large crowded room
filled with people in front of computers wearing headsets, not
unlike the large crowded room at Lands' End. The shipping
agent told Charlene that she had to get seven drums of paint to
Muskegon, Michigan, as soon as possible. It was 11:25 a.m.
Charlene told the agent she would call her back, and
immediately typed those details into her computer, which
relayed the message to the two-way-communications satellite
that serves as the backbone for the Roberts transportation
network. The Roberts satellite, in turn, "pinged" the fifteen
hundred independent truckers that Roberts works with, and
calculated how far each available vehicle was from the customer
in Oak Creek. Those data were then analyzed by proprietary
software, which sorted out the cost of the job and the distance
between Muskegon and Oak Creek, and sifted through more
than fifteen variables governing the optimal distribution of the

     This much--the satellite relay and the probability
calculation--took a matter of seconds. The trip, Charlene's
screen told her, was two hundred and seventy-four miles and
would cost seven hundred and twenty-six dollars. The computer
also gave her twenty-three candidates for the run, ranked in
order of preference. The first, Charlene realized, was ineligible,
because federal regulations limit the number of hours drivers
can spend on the road. The second, she found out, was being
held for another job. The third, according to the satellite, was
fifty miles away, which was too far. But the fourth, a husband-
and-wife team named Jerry and Ann Love, seemed ideal. They
were just nineteen miles from OakCreek. "I've worked with
them before," Charlene said. "They're really nice people." At
eleven-twenty-seven, Charlene sent the Loves an E-mail
message, via satellite, that would show up instantly on the
computer screens Roberts installs in the cabs of all its
contractors. According to Roberts' rules, they had ten minutes to
respond. "I'm going to give them a minute or two," Charlene
said. There was no answer, so she called the Loves on their cell
phone. Ann Love answered. "We'll do that," she said. Charlene
chatted with her for a moment and then, as an afterthought, 
E-mailed the Loves again: "Thank you!" It was eleven-thirty.

     Trucking companies didn't work this way twenty years
ago.  But Roberts uses its state-of-the-art communications and
computer deployment to give the shipping business a new level
of precision. If your pickup location is within twenty-five miles
of one of the company's express centers--and Roberts has
express centers in most major North American cities--Roberts
will pick up a package of almost any size within ninety minutes,
and it will do so twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If
the cargo is located between twenty-six and fifty miles of an
express center, it will be picked up within two hours. More than
half of those deliveries will be made by midnight of the same
day. Another twenty-five per cent will be made by eight o'clock
the next morning. Ninety-six per cent of all Roberts deliveries
are made within fifteen minutes of the delivery time promised
when the order is placed. Because of its satellite system, the
company knows precisely, within yards, where your order is at
all times. The minute the computer tells her your truck is
running fifteen minutes behind, Charlene or one of her
colleagues will call you to work out some kind of solution.
Roberts has been known to charter planes or send in Huey
helicopters to rescue time-sensitive cargo stranded in traffic or
in a truck that has broken down. The result is a truck-based
system so efficient that Roberts estimates it can outperform air
freight at distances of up to seven hundred or eight hundred

     Roberts, of course, isn't the only company to reinvent the
delivery business over the past twenty years. In the same
period, Federal Express has put together, from scratch, a
network of six hundred and forty-three planes, forty-three
thousand five hundred vehicles, fourteen hundred service
centers, thirty-four thousand drop boxes, and a hundred and
forty-eight thousand employees--all coordinated by satellite
links and organized around a series of huge, automated, bar-
code-driven Willy Wonka warehouses. Federal Express was even
a pioneer in the development of aircraft antifog navigational
equipment: if it absolutely, positively has to get there
overnight, the weather can't be allowed to get in the way.

     E-commerce would be impossible without this
extraordinary infrastructure. Would you care that you could
order a new wardrobe with a few clicks of a mouse if the
package took a couple of weeks to get to you? Lands' End has
undergone three major changes over the past couple of
decades. The first was the introduction of an 800 number, in
1978; the second was express delivery, in 1994; and the third
was the introduction of a Web site, in 1995. The first two
innovations cut the average transaction time--the time between
the moment of ordering and the moment the goods are
received--from three weeks to four days. The third innovation
has cut the transaction time from four days to, well, four days. 

     It isn't just that E-commerce depends on express mail;
there's a sense in which E-commerce is express mail. Right
now, billions of dollars are being spent around the country on
so-called "last-mile delivery systems." Companies such as
Webvan, in San Francisco, or, in New York, are
putting together networks of trucks and delivery personnel
which can reach almost any home in their area within an hour.
What if Webvan or Kozmo were somehow integrated into a
huge, national, Roberts-style network of connected trucks? And
what if that network were in turn integrated into the operations
of a direct merchant like Lands' End? There may soon come a
time when a customer from Northampton could order some
shirts on at the height of the Christmas rush,
knowing that the retailer's computer could survey its stock,
assess its warehouse capabilities, "ping" a network of thousands
of trucks it has at its disposal, look up how many other orders
are going to his neck of the woods, check in with his local
Kozmo or Webvan, and tell him, right then and there, precisely
what time it could deliver those shirts to him that evening or
the next morning. It's not hard to imagine, under such a
system, that Lands' End's sales would soar; the gap between
the instant gratification of a real store and the delayed
gratification of a virtual store would narrow even further. It
would be a revolution of sorts, a revolution of satellites,
probability models, people in headsets, cell phones, truckers,
logistics experts, bar codes, deals with the local cheese factory,
and--oh yes, the Internet.

     The interesting question, of course, is why we persist in
identifying the E-commerce boom as an Internet revolution. Part
of the reason, perhaps, is simply the convenience of the word
"Internet" as a shorthand for all the technological wizardry of
the last few decades. But surely whom and what we choose to
celebrate in any period of radical change says something about
the things we value. This fall, for example, the Goodyear Tire
& Rubber Company--a firm with sales of more than thirteen
billion dollars--was dropped from the Dow Jones industrial
average. After all, Goodyear runs factories, not Web sites. It is
based in Akron, not in Silicon Valley. It is part of the highway
highway, not the information highway. The manufacturing
economy of the early twentieth century, from which Goodyear
emerged, belonged to trade unions and blue-collar men. But
ours is the first economic revolution in history that the educated
classes have sought to claim as wholly their own, a revolution of
Kevin Kelly's "communication" and Bill Gates's "thought"--the
two activities for which the Net-Geners believe themselves to be
uniquely qualified. Today's talkers and thinkers value the
conception of ideas, not their fulfillment. They give credit to the
catalogue, but not to the postman who delivered it, or to the
road he travelled on. The new economy was supposed to erase
all hierarchies. Instead, it has devised another one. On the front
end, there are visionaries. On the back end, there are drones.


     One of the very first packages ever delivered by parcel
post, in 1913, was an eight-pound crate of apples sent from
New Jersey to President Wilson at the White House. The
symbolism of that early delivery was deliberate. When the
parcel post was established, the assumption was that it would
be used by farmers as a way of sending their goods cheaply and
directly to customers in the city. "Let us imagine that the
Gotham family," one journalist wrote at the time, immured in
the city by the demands of Father Gotham's business, knew that
twice a week during the summer they could get from Farmer
Ruralis, forty miles out in the country, a hamper of fresh-killed
poultry, green peas, string beans, asparagus, strawberries,
lettuce, cherries, summer squash, and what not; that the "sass"
would be only a day from garden to table; that prices would be
lower than market prices; that the cost of transportation would
be only thirty-five cents in and, say, eleven cents for the empty
hamper back again. Would the Gotham family be interested?

     The Post Office told rural mailmen to gather the names
and addresses of all those farmers along their routes who
wanted to sell their produce by mail. Those lists were given to
city mailmen, who delivered them along their routes, so
interested customers could get in contact with interested
farmers directly. Because customers wanted to know what kind
of produce each farmer had to sell, local postmasters began
including merchandise information on their lists, essentially
creating a farm-produce mail-order catalogue. A California
merchant named David Lubin proposed a scheme whereby a
farmer would pick up colored cards from the post office--white
for eggs, pink for chickens, yellow for butter--mark each card
with his prices, and mail the cards back. If he had three
chickens that week for a dollar each, he would mail three pink
cards to the post office. There they would be put in a pigeonhole
with all the other pink cards. Customers could come by and
comparison shop, pick out the cards they liked, write their
address on these cards, and have the postal clerk mail them
back to the farmer. It was a pre-digital eBay. The scheme was
adopted in and around Sacramento, and Congress appropriated
ten thousand dollars to try a similar version of it on a large

     At about the same time, an assistant Postmaster General,
James Blakslee, had the bright idea of putting together a fleet of
parcel-post trucks, which would pick up farm produce from
designated spots along the main roads and ship it directly to
town. Blakslee laid out four thousand miles of produce routes
around the country, to be covered by fifteen hundred parcel-
post trucks. In 1918, in the system's inaugural run, four
thousand day-old chicks, two hundred pounds of honey, five
hundred pounds of smoked sausage, five hundred pounds of
butter, and eighteen thousand eggs were carried from
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to New York City, all for $31.60 in
postage. New York's Secretary of State called it "an epoch in the
history of the United States and the world."

     Only, it wasn't. The Post Office had devised a wonderful
way of communicating between farmer and customer. But there
is more to a revolution than communication, and within a few
years the farm-to-table movement, which started out with such
high hopes, was dead. The problem was that Blakslee's trucks
began to break down, which meant that the food on board
spoiled. Eggs proved hard to package, and so they often arrived
damaged. Butter went rancid. In the winter of 1919-20, Blakslee
collected a huge number of orders for potatoes, but, as Wayne
Fuller writes in his wonderful history of the era, "RFD:The
Changing Face of Rural America," the potatoes that year were
scarce, and good ones even scarcer, and when Blakslee's men
were able to buy them and attempted delivery, nothing but
trouble followed. Some of the potatoes were spoiled to begin
with; some froze in transit; prices varied, deliveries went
astray, and customers complained loudly enough for Congress
to hear. One harried official wrote Blakslee that he could "fill the
mails with complaints from people who have ordered potatoes
from October to December."... Some people had been waiting
over four months, either to have the potatoes delivered or their
money refunded.

     Parcel post, in the end, turned out to be something
entirely different from what was originally envisioned--a means
not to move farm goods from country to town but to move
consumer goods from town to country. That is the first lesson
from the revolution of a hundred years ago, and it's one that
should give pause to all those eager to pronounce on the
significance of the Internet age: the nature of revolutions is
such that you never really know what they mean until they are
over. The other lesson, of course, is that coming up with a new
way of connecting buyers and sellers is a very fine thing, but
what we care about most of all is getting our potatoes.
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