Mail-Order Catalogs


| 12/13/2016 9:52:00 AM


Tags: Looking Back, Sam Moore,

Sam MooreDoes anyone (besides me) remember the anticipation and the agonizingly long wait after your mother sent in an order to Sears and Roebuck? This Christmas season made me think of the wonderful Sears and Roebuck wish books full of toys that my sister and I pored over as children.

Aaron Montgomery Ward established the first of the modern mail-order houses in 1872 in Chicago. By 1874, his catalog offered a wide range of products to farmers at near wholesale prices. 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 mid-western farmers.

In 1886, a 23-year-old railroad telegrapher in Minnesota, Richard Warren Sears, began selling watches as a sideline. The watches were 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 and Co.

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

The incredibly low prices, money-back guarantees and showy catalogs all combined to supply the rural customer’s every wish and to sell them items they never believed they could afford. Sears emphasized the variety, style and low prices of the seemingly endless array of food, medicines, hardware, household goods, farm equipment, sporting goods, jewelry and clothing in his huge catalogs. Although there were no colors shown, each product was represented in the early years by an accurate and detailed drawing. The 1900 catalog featured actual photographs of people’s heads perched atop drawings of the suits, dresses and corsets, giving a comical aspect to some of the pictures.

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 could pore over the pages of clothes and pick out the same fashions that stylish women were wearing 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 were a centerpiece in every country home and were called “Wish Books,” or the “Farmer's Bible.”