Tenacious for Quality
For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Herter's was a mail order catalog retailer based in Waseca, Minnesota. Out of business for more than 3 decades, they were once a major player in the sporting firearms and reloading market.
Herter's is still remembered for its unusual and expansive catalogs which advertised all manner of gun, hunting, camping and fishing gear. At 750 pages, the 1974 Herter's catalog was likely the largest one that the company ever published (Herter's Ad 120) although all the catalogs were pretty substantial. The 1972 catalog pictured here goes on from more than 650 pages.
Of course, you cannot talk about Herter's Inc. without talking about its eccentric and enigmatic owner, George L. Herter who turned the family dry goods business into a sporting goods behemoth. Born in 1911, George Leonard Herter started managing the family business in 1937 at the age of 26. As it happens, Herter's interests leaned more toward hunting and fishing rather than dry goods so he started selling materials for fly tying. Having some success with that venture, he expanded into other fishing and hunting equipment. Herter started the catalog business after his military service in World War II.
Writing and composing copy for all of his catalogs, Herter time and time again demonstrated his prowess as a pitchman using the written word.
According to him every product that he sold was the best that could be had and on occasion he even took the trouble to disparage the products sold by his competitors.
While some may consider much of the catalog text as hyperbole, it was very readable hyperbole. His customers certainly were willing to overlook the sometimes extraordinary claims of the superiority of Herter's wares over those of his competitors and revel in the entertainment value of the publication.
To be fair, by all accounts his merchandise was pretty good and for the most part, priced less than Herter's competitors.
George Herter is fondly remembered not only for the catalog that he authored but also for a number of self-published books that he wrote, which were sold through his catalog business.
A couple of his more popular and intriguing books were a marriage guide entitled "How to Live with a Bitch" and a cookbook called " The Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices"
An interesting thing to note is that some of these publications were co-written by authors such as Jacques P. Herter II and George L. Herter II, both of whom existed only in George Herter's fertile imagination (Petzal 134).
Old World Craftsmanship, New World Production
Although Herter's claimed to be a major manufacturer of sporting goods and other items, there is little evidence to support that. They were a retailer, so just about all the products labeled with Herter's brand name were made by other companies under contract.
Smokeless powder was manufactured by Nobel and imported from Scotland, brass cartridge cases were made in Sweden. Herter's branded firearms were sourced from a number of European countries.
Everything about Herter's was exaggerated or over the top, including the company logo which looked more like a coat of arms than the spartan emblems that most companies use today. It was a complex and fanciful graphic of crossed muskets on a shield flanked on the left with a stag and on the right with a horse dragon combination. Pictures of a duck, a dagger, a trout, a square rigged sailing vessel and fishhooks were added for good measure.
The End is Nigh
In the late 1970's, Herter was offered 3 million dollars for the company, which he refused. While it may have seemed to be a pittance for a long established business with such a large a customer base, by 1981 the company was going under and circumstances compelled him to sell out for one tenth of the original offer.
Although some people attribute the eventual failure of Herter's to the gun control act of 1968, the company's product line was so diverse that firearm sales were likely only a small part of the business. Really, there were a number of other factors which brought about the collapse of the Herter's. Poorly managed customer service, a general decline in discretionary spending of their customer base and a poorly timed expansion of the business all took their toll. While the general consensus of Herter's customers seems to be that most of goods sold through the catalog were good to high quality, it often took a long time for orders to be filled and frequently items would have to be backordered (Kreh 58).
Frustrated with the quality of service, many of Herter's customers took their business elsewhere. Herter further overextended his business by borrowing a large sum of money to open several new stores during a period of economic decline and high interest rates in the late 70's.
In 1994, George Herter died at the age of 83.
The Herter Name Lives On
Though the company has long since passed into history, the Herter's name is still in use today by Cabelas to brand some steel cased plinking grade ammunition imported from Russia, a line of brass cased pistol ammunition from the Czech Republic as well as some hunting clothing. Cabelas brass cased ammunition is manufactured by Sellier & Bellot and sold under the name, Herter's Select.
Collins, Paul "The Oddball Know-It-All" New York Times 7 Dec. 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/book/review/Collins-t.html
Dean, Jim "The News From Waseca" "The Secret Lives of Fishermen" 2000 p. 13-15
Kreh, Lefty "My Life Was This Big and Other True Tales" 2008 p. 58
Herter's Advertisement Field & Stream Oct 1973 p. 120 Google Books
Moorhead, Richie R. "Herter's Catalog-a Wish Book for Adventure" "The Kid Looks Back" Author House 2011 p. 141-142 Google Books
Petzal, David E. "The World According to Herter" Field & Stream Dec. 2006-Jan. 2007 p.132-135
Yurk, Mike "The Ultimate Wish Book" "A View From The Lake " Author House 2010 p. 24-30 Google Books