by Elizabeth Kilcoyne

In the 1960s, S&H Green Stamps were the hottest perk on the market. Supermarkets, gas stations and department stores gave them out as rewards—similar to the grocery store Monopoly Game today. S&H stood for the Sperry & Hutchinson company that operated the stamp program. Retailers purchased the stamps from Sperry and Hutchinson to distribute them as loyalty rewards to their customers.

When I was a kid, if my mom and I were in the grocery checkout line, and she saw a man shoving stamps into his pocket while leaving, she’d say, “Bethy, go ask that man if he wants his Green Stamps.”

I’d reply, “Aw, Mom, I don’t want to.”

“Just go ahead. You’re going to miss him!”

Mom had an eye for disinterested stamp collectors. The clerks didn’t ask if you wanted the rewards, the way they do now. Everybody got S&H Green Stamps. A machine next to the register went chi-cum, chi-cum as it spit out the correct number of stamps. The stamps came in values of one, ten, and fifty points. Shoppers licked the back of the stamps and pasted them into collectors’ books in a meticulous fashion. At one time, Sperry and Hutchinson boasted that the company issued more stamps than the U.S. Postal Service. Collecting stamps allowed people like my parents to acquire nice things without having to save or plan.

Stamps were traded for treasures at the S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center. I loved to go there with Mom to check out the merchandise. Rewards for the whole family with alluring descriptions filled a one-story building. Tricolator “Corvette” Automatic Percolator, Cannon “Remembrance Rose” Blanket, Daisy Double Holster Set, and Strutwear Nylon Tricot Full-Slip. The company’s catalog included even more treasures. Each reward listed the number of books necessary for the trade.

Mom looked through the catalog every week, thumbing through the pages of crystal wine glasses, porcelain teacups and gold-edged china. Then she saw it—the Silver Tea Service. It included a tall smooth coffee pot that stood like a regal eggplant. The teapot was a plumper version, but just as smooth and regal and silvery. Their spouts were majestic like swans’ necks. A sugar bowl and pitcher completed the service on an elaborate tray with spiral patterns etched into the silver. She had to have it.

At first, I was not interested in the Silver Tea Service. It would require all the stamps we could collect or bargain for, and meant we couldn’t get any other rewards from the Redemption Center until the tea service belonged to my mother. When would we use it?

Aunt Peg, my father’s sister, was graduating from medical school that Spring. She was the first person in our family to attend college, never mind to graduate from medical school. My mother admired Peg and decided to host a celebration tea party for her with the Silver Tea Service. Game on! I was all in. Aunt Peg was an attentive listener and challenged us to achieve, plus she didn’t have children of her own and liked spending time with us.

I didn’t know it then, but my mother had a difficult time being accepted by my father’s New England family, specifically his mother. Mom grew up on a farm in Fincherville, Georgia, a typical southern plantation town. She was the youngest of five children and never wanted for attention. The family produced cotton as their cash crop and grew or raised all the food to feed themselves and the farmhands. The farm required hard work and full engagement of the family to eat and survive. To this day, my mother refuses to throw food away.

After graduating from high school, Mom was selected for the Cadet Nurse Corps in Memphis, Tennessee, during World War II. It was at a United Service Organization (USO) dance where she met and fell in love with my dad, John Kilcoyne, a Navy man from Worcester, Massachusetts. Mom was nineteen when the war ended. My father and his betrothed took a train from Memphis to Massachusetts to see his hometown and “meet the family.” My paternal grandmother had grown up in Ireland and emigrated to America as a young woman, but that didn’t seem to help her accept my mother. Mom was Southern Baptist, and Dad’s family was Irish Catholic. Wanting desperately to fit in with her new family and a culture she didn’t yet understand, she agreed to change her name from Martha to Mary and became a Catholic. If the fates had allowed it, she would have become Irish as well. This gala event for Aunt Peg was an opportunity for her to show she was a true “northern belle.”

Because Aunt Peg was so special to us, we were all motivated to get the tea service and help launch the celebration. Ironically, when I recently spoke to my siblings, none of them remembered the tea party for Aunt Peg. My older brothers remember licking the stamps but don’t remember that the silver tea service was acquired with Green Stamps. As my brother Sean recalled, it was essential to be careful when sticking the stamps in the book. “You couldn’t wrinkle the stamps or put less than a whole stamp in a space.”

My brother Steve had a friend who pasted the stamps inside his car’s windshield to avoid buying an inspection sticker.

We shopped for groceries only on Double-Stamp Day, and never stopped at a store unless green stamps were offered. This included driving miles out of our way. I was conditioned now. I followed every person from the checkout line and asked if they were going to use their stamps. We shopped during the week and pasted on Saturday mornings. “Lick and Stick” was a family event. The sweet and bitter taste on my tongue lasted into the afternoon.

Finally, we had enough stamps. My memory is that to obtain the tea service required shopping bags full of collectors’ books. Thanks to eBay, I checked the green stamp catalog from that year, and the entire tea service, including the ornate silver tray, was only 21 books, hardly filling one bag. The magical gift of children is to remember larger than life. The Tea Service had to be ordered by the redemption center, and it arrived just in time for Peg’s graduation. My sister Martha Jr. remembers going with Mom to pick up the Silver Tea Service. The clerk at the Redemption Center reviewed every page of all twenty-one books. Any page that had a damaged or incomplete stamp was rejected. Luckily, mom had extra books with her, as she knew the rules. Martha Jr. had her eye on a Pancho Gonzales tennis racket and kept her fingers crossed as the pages were scrutinized. They left the Redemption Center that day with the Tea Service and tennis racket. I remember being jealous because I had never gotten a treasure, and I could still taste the glue from the stamps.

On the day of Aunt Peg’s graduation, a rose-beige tablecloth graced the table, as did plates of tea sandwiches and colorful bowls of olives, fruits, and candies. The cake read Congratulations Dr. Margaret Kilcoyne. The house was filled with relatives and other people I didn’t know. They wore their most elegant attire and balanced cups of tea on their laps. Aunt Peg had a contagious smile. She moved around the room, receiving congratulations from everyone and sharing plans for her residency. My most vivid memory of the party is of my mother standing at the end of the dining room table in her bone-white sheath dress, white pearls and white heels in front of the Silver Tea Service, pouring for the guests. Mom never did win over her mother-in-law, but she gave one shining tea party that day.

Years later, when I had my own dining room, I wanted to display the Silver Tea Service. Mom had retired to Florida and wasn’t quite sure where it was. Martha Jr. had it somewhere in her attic and was happy to pass it on to me. We looked for it together and found the teapot and the rest of the set in the last box we opened. Every piece was black with tarnish, and it appeared that some had pockmarks. I brought it home, and cleaned and scrubbed and polished it until the tea service shined like new. I bought a tea cart and set it out with pride. 

Now, as I retire, the tea cart has fallen victim to decluttering. I display the tea and coffee pots and the sugar bowl and pitcher on three plexiglass corner shelves in my living room. The oversized tray lives under the couch. Mom, whose name is Martha again, polishes the tea service every time she visits, keeping the memories alive.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Kilcoyne grew up in Massachusetts. She holds a bachelor’s in mathematics and a master’s in public administration. After a career in public finance, Elizabeth began writing about traveling and other personal experiences. Her first essay, Getting to Oxford, was published in the Green Briar Review. You can contact Elizabeth through her website ElizabethKilcoyne.Net.