Morse’s parents, grandparents made their mark on china pattern-finding business
PRINCETON — When “Generations Strong” was announced as this year’s Homestead Festival theme, local business owner Jelinda “Jyl” Morse began thinking back on the three generations of her family who have owned and operated Hoffman’s Patterns of the Past.
The china and giftware shop located on Princeton’s Main Street has been in her family for 74 years.
Known as “the china sea,” Hoffman’s has the largest collection of new store stock china patterns that attract people from all over the world looking to replace broken or missing pieces in their discontinued sets. It’s a unique service not many see or hear about anymore.
Today, the china collection at Hoffman’s totals more than 275,000 patterns, which can be found neatly stacked from floor to ceiling on shelves upon shelves in the basement of the store. That doesn’t cover what one might find in the upper levels of the shop, which is also packed full of giftware items. These collections have earned Hoffman’s the rank of being Illinois’ largest gift shop, stocking more than 75 major collectibles.
“People ask if I ever sell anything out of here, and I say, every day. It’s just crazy where the calls come from and the orders go,” Morse said.
Hoffman’s merchandise has attracted a lot of big-name customers over the years, including president’s wives, the Illinois governor, and a few celebrities here and there. But to Morse, big names don’t really matter. She’s dedicated to serving any and all customers who walk through her door.
Grandparents purchase store
Hoffman’s first came into the family in 1944 when Morse’s grandparents, Mabel and Joseph Allen Murphey Sr., purchased the business from Anna Hoffman. The business was passed onto her parents, Winifred and Joseph Allen Murphey Jr., who worked in the shop until they were 89 years old.
Over time, Morse took on the responsibilities of sole operator of the business and currently shares partnership with three siblings.
The business will soon begin a new sort of generation as Morse made one of the hardest decisions of her life this year to put Hoffman’s up for sale.
Her children have pursued other life opportunities and don’t wish to carry on the china business. And at age 66, Morse said she is at a point in her life where she’s ready to step back and let someone with the same sort of knowledge and passion take over for her family.
“Being a generational thing, I really got a lot of knowledge from my mom and dad for everything, and I really want to pass it on to someone,” she said. “That’s what this business takes. It’s knowledge plus kindness and wanting to be there for people.”
Morse has also been battling cancer since 2011. It started out as breast cancer, and in 2016 she underwent a surgery to remove the mass. Not too long after, she fell and broke her wrist, which she believes caused the cancer to travel through her blood system and into her spine.
“Right now, they’re keeping it at bay, and it’s not moving, but they say at some point, cancer outsmarts the treatment,” she said.
Morse has not let her health hold her back. She can still be found within the store during business hours busy with various projects she’s planned for herself that day. She’s also actively on the hunt for the right person to take her place — someone who will be dedicated to carrying on the same noteworthy service Hoffman’s has come to be known for after seven decades.
“I want somebody who’s really going to care, who isn’t just going to kick it to the street. We could liquidate this easily, but what would it do for Princeton? It draws so many people who shop here, eat here, and buy their gas here,” Morse said. “It’s so good for the local economy, and Princeton is such a vibrant business community now.”
The first generations
The roots of Hoffman’s can be traced back to the mid-1800s when it was a mercantile company owned by the Le Fonte family. Even back then, the store sold china that came from overseas.
In 1909, Anna Hoffman purchased the business and changed the name to Hoffman’s. The store was located on South Main Street where Good Scents is today.
Hoffman sold barrels of china and a variety of other things including musical instruments, jewelry, antiques and giftware.
According to Morse, Hoffman was the first person to come up with the idea of setting up wedding registries.
“She would separate the barrel of china and sell it for weddings so people didn’t have to buy the entire barrel,” she said. “Word traveled about the concept and it became popular, and it was all created right here in Princeton.”
When Hoffman was looking to retire in 1944, Morse’s grandparents, Mabel and Joseph Allen Murphey Sr., who were local business owners of the Whatnot Shop in the former American Hotel on Main Street, decided to purchase Hoffman’s. As avid antique collectors, Morse believes it was Hoffman’s antiques that attracted her grandparents to the business.
Shortly later, Murphey Sr. became ill, and Mabel was forced to ask her son to come home and help run the family business.
Joseph Allen Jr. had just gotten married to Winifred, and the two were settling into a new life together on the West Coast. When they got word about Murphey Sr.’s health, they quickly sold off their home and business and moved to Princeton.
They made it home a half hour before Murphey Sr. passed away at Perry Memorial Hospital.
The second generation
Murphey Jr. got his feet wet with the business rather quickly following his father’s passing.
His father’s antique collection included a number of china sets he couldn’t figure out what to do with. So he began writing to the manufacturers of the patterns asking if they knew anybody who would need it. He was sent back a list of names of people interested in purchasing the discontinued patterns, and he quickly discovered there was a real market and niche to be had for a china pattern-finding service.
“My dad is the second generation that kicked off the whole pattern-finding service. He actually woke up from a dead sleep in 1944 and woke my mom up and said, ‘We’re going to be a pattern-finding service, Winnie, and it’s going to be called Patterns of the Past,’” Morse said.
Things seemed to fall into place as it was about that time, after World War II, when bridal and wedding registry was becoming a popular trend. The desire to have nice place settings to serve families fueled the demand for china sets.
Murphey worked hard to build up his china stock, which at one time filled seven warehouses.
And as the business grew, his family did too. Murphey Jr. and Winnie raised five children and became active members of their community. They worked in their shop until they were 89 years old. Murphey Jr. passed away in 2004, and Winnie in 2014.
The third generation
Morse grew up in a home where good china was highly valued. She watched her mother, Winnie, set beautiful tables.
“Although she worked full-time, she managed to still put good meals on the table,” Morse said.
It wasn’t until her adult life that Morse held a job in her parents’ china shop. Her father had urged her to get a job somewhere else from the time she was old enough to work.
When she graduated from high school, Morse went off to college in Atlanta, Ga. and pursued a degree in fashion illustration. At one point in her studies, she got an overwhelming feeling it was time to return home, and so she did.
Back in Princeton, Morse’s father advised her to take jobs in local department stores where she was taught strong customer service skills and plenty of retail lessons that have helped her carry on the success of Hoffman’s.
In the early 1980s, Morse’s father told her to give her notice because he needed her to help with the family business, and she’s been there ever since.
“It’s such a love. It’s such a feed. You really care about it and care about your customers,” she said.
There’s a lot of things Morse brought to the business that her father was never ready to implement —mostly technology additions. Once Morse took over full-time, she had a website developed and began keeping up with the times through the business’ online presence, which has attracted customers from overseas.
Morse said there are even higher levels she feels the business could be taken to, and is prepared to pass those ideas onto the next generation who will breath new life into the china pattern-finding service.