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Visions of Sugarplums (and the Sears catalog)


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Farm families once depended on mail order catalogs

How many of you remember the anticipation, and the agonizingly long wait, after your mother sent in an order to Sears & Roebuck or Montgomery Ward & Co.? The Christmas season makes me think of the wonderful Sears & Roebuck "wish books" full of toys that my sister and I pored over as children.

Consumer goods had been available by mail since colonial times, but in the late 1800s country buyers were leery of sending their money by an uncertain mail for goods they hadn't even seen a picture of, and that often didn't measure up to written descriptions.

Aaron Montgomery Ward established the first of the modern mailorder houses in 1872 in Chicago. By 1874, his catalog offered a wide range of products to farmers at prices near wholesale. The National Grange supported Ward's efforts, and by the early 1890s, Montgomery Ward was distributing a 280-page catalog containing nearly 10,000 items to tens of thousands of Midwestern farmers.

In 1886, a 23-year-old railroad telegrapher in Minnesota, Richard Warren Sears, began selling watches as a sideline. The venture was so profitable that Sears quit the railroad and sold jewelry and watches by mail, hiring a watch repairman named Alvah C. Roebuck. In 1894 they moved to Chicago and set up a general mail-order house called Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Sears was a master salesman and an advertising genius. Through his catalogs, he convinced skeptical farmers to send off their money to a man in Chicago they'd never seen, for things they'd also never seen or, in some cases, even heard of.

Incredibly low prices, money-back guarantees and showy catalogs combined to supply rural customers' every wish and to sell them items they never even believed they could afford. Sears emphasized the variety, style and low prices of a seemingly endless array of food, medicines, hardware, household goods, farm equipment, sporting goods, jewelry and clothing in his huge catalogs. Although no colors were shown, each product was represented in the early years by a reasonably accurate and detailed drawing.

The mail-order catalog put the world's biggest store in every farmer's mailbox and offered people products they would never see in their local country store. Women pored over pages of clothes and picked out the same fashions being worn by stylish women in the large cities, for a lot less money. All the latest gadgets, furniture and appliances for the home were displayed. Little girls dreamed of a new doll, toy furniture or a miniature tea set. Boys wished for a wagon, a train, a gun or a kite. Farmers studied the latest tools and machinery and checked out the shotguns and fishing poles. The catalogs, a centerpiece in every country home, were called "Wish Books," or the "Farmer's Bible."

In the 1900 Sears catalog you could buy groceries: tea, coffee, canned fruits, vegetables and meats, salt, flour and crackers. Drugs of all kinds were offered, from smoking and drinking cures to "Brown's Vegetable Cure for Female Weakness," to pills to "cure almost every illness." Veterinary supplies, paint, watches and jewelry, silverware and eyeglasses were available, along with all kinds of clothing for every member of the family.

Cameras, talking machines, pianos and organs and all kinds of musical instruments, books, firearms, boxing gloves and catcher's mitts, fishing tackle, bicycles and toys, trunks and traveling bags, wigs and toupees, tombstones, hardware and farm equipment, safes, stoves, buggies and sleighs and harness, furniture, dishes and lamps, as well as sewing machines and baby carriages, all could be seen and ordered from the comfort of your kitchen table.

From 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Co. even sold house kits. These kits included plans, millwork, cabinetry, roofing, flooring, siding, doors, shutters, hardware, paint and even nails. You could buy the extras, such as heating, plumbing and electrical fixtures, from the catalog as well.

Agricultural tools and machines such as cream separators, pumps, gas engines and corn shellers, which had previously been too expensive, were now within reach through the catalog. Mail-order changed the lives of rural families. One writer summed it up by saying: "A baby born in the country in 1890 might sleep in a mailorder cradle, play as a child with mail-order toys, buy a mail-order suit as a young man, get his new wife a mail-order washing machine, work his fields with a mailorder plow, raise his children in a mail-order house, and be buried at the end of his life under a mailorder tombstone."

Although ordering by mail was a new experience for most farmers, it was easy because a trip to the post office in town wasn't necessary. Sears told their customers to give their order and money to the rural mail carrier, who would buy a money order and send the order on its way. By providing modern conveniences and stylish goods, the catalogs helped to improve rural life and eliminate the isolation of farm families.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com