Let's Talk Rusty Iron

Visions of Sugarplums (and the Sears catalog)

| January 2006

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    Right: A Lionel train set like this one was something I longed for as a boy, but never got.Left: Aren’t these beauties? On Christmas morning of 1930, during the depths of the Great Depression, probably only rich kids received such expensive toys.Left: Before Barbie, there was Flossie Flirt.Right: What red-blooded American 6-year-old wouldn’t have been overjoyed to find this beauty under the tree? I know I would have.
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    Right: The front cover of the 1934 Sears & Roebuck Fall and Winter catalog, giving a hint of the many treasures within. At about the turn of the 20th century, some wag wrote that the Sears catalog was one of only two books read by rural folks, with the Bible being the other.Right: These Marx wind-up tractors sold for less than a dollar back then. Today an example in good condition would probably bring many dollars.Above: For the little girl who wanted to toil just like her Mommy.

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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.


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