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Premiums

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The storekeepers and merchants of Rock Island and Moline had survived for fifty years in the face of fires and floods, robberies, depressions and similar Goliaths, but by the end of the 19th century, their backs were against the wall as they faced a growing evil: the premium.

Moline merchants complained that there was not a store in the while city which did not give premiums of some kind with goods bought. It was an evil, one merchant said, that threatened the life of many businesses. The situation was just as grim in Rock Island. Something has to be done, storekeepers in Rock Island cried. We must counteract this craze for premiums; it had reached the point that, if an individual buys a dime's worth of crackers or a yard of ribbon, he expects a ticket on some premiums.

The practice of giving premiums had spawned other evils. Throughout Rock Island and Moline, there were not only premiums, but trading stamps, prizes, chance contests, and presents.

In 1896, eighty Rock Island store owners assembled an army known as the Rock Island Merchant's Mutual Protective Association, which met monthly in the Odd Fellows Hall to plan warfare on premiums. Two years later, their counterparts in Moline banded together as the Moline Retail Merchant's Association. It was hang together or hang separately.

Late into many nights, no doubt in smoke-filled rooms, strategy was plotted. If it takes a man to do a man's job, think what work a group of men can accomplish. And so it happened.

An idea began to emerge. Let's all agree to stop handing out stamps, premiums, and prizes to attract customers into our stores, someone said. The idea immediately became a bylaw.

Now, the merchants wondered, how are we going to bring customers in? The associations immediately began lobbying the city fathers for better roads, free bridges across the river, and improved train service into Rock Island and Moline.

And then, with the combined might of two hundred or so men's minds, the associations came up with one last idea: why not try dealing fairly with the customer, emphasizing honest prices and service in place of premiums? It was such a solid idea it took almost five years for premiums and prizes to return.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.