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Time-Life Books, Columbia House, and the Jelly of the Month Club
I was browsing a local Goodwill when I spotted a full set of the Time-Life Books series, The Old West. Used bookstores and online sellers appear to be stocked to the rafters with books from Time-Life. As a former collector of some of their titles, I realized I had no idea how they got involved in releasing books in this fashion.
In 1961, Time-Life was founded to be the book marketing division of Time, Incorporated. It got its name from two of the most popular American magazines of the 20th century, Time and Life.
What made it different from other publishers was that it was a direct to consumer business. Every month, the next book in a series would be mailed to consumers, and over the course of years you would accumulate a fairly large collection.
While many people who were around in the Eighties and Nineties are more familiar with their sensationalistic offerings, like the Library of Curious and Unusual Facts, many of their works of history and art were quite serious and well-received.
For example, the 17 volume Library of Photography is a stunning collection of photos, which makes sense since both Time and Life had massive photo libraries.
Still, it’s understandable why people remember their spookier books, the advertising was just so memorable.
The direct-to-consumer model, worked well for books, and it worked even better for music.
Columbia Record Club was founded in 1955 by CBS/Columbia Record. Its purpose was to sell music directly to consumers by mail. This would offer an alternative to mail-order and catalog competition and add an option for people who do not have access to a record store.
To entice people to join, they would give away a free record. It worked like a charm and by the end of 1955, they had recruited 125,175 “members” and sold over 700, 000 records.
Over the years, they would embrace new technology and make reel-to-reel recordings, 8-tracks, cassettes, VHS and compact discs available to members. They moved a lot of products over the years, but this success was not without controversy.
Two big complaints get mentioned often. Firstly the club membership was often taken advantage of by teenagers who couldn’t resist the offer of free albums, but rarely read the fine print. Which meant the parents were stuck sorting it all out.
The other was the practice known as negative option billing. That is where you are supplied with a product and billed for it automatically until you actively cancel it. It sounds like it should be easy, but have you ever tried to quit the gym?
This reminds me of another membership, that some might not prefer, but it’s a lot sweeter than a gym membership.
Jelly of the Month Club
You might have seen people online making a reference to the Jelly of the Month Club. While these clubs do exist now, people are actually referring to its mention in the 1989 comedy classic, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
When people bring it up, they are usually joking about a disappointing gift that they were not expecting. In the film, it is what Clark gets in lieu of a Christmas bonus that he was going to use to buy a swimming pool. As you might guess, he is not happy about it.
While it’s not a great gift when you are expecting enough money for a swimming pool, I love jelly and would be happy to be a part of that club.