Let's Talk Rusty Iron

Visions of Sugarplums (and the Sears catalog)

| January 2006

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.