Mail-Order Catalogs

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Does 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.”

In the 1900 Sears catalog you could buy groceries; tea, coffee, canned fruits, vegetables and meats, salt, flour and crackers. Drugs of all kinds, 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, 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 and 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.

Both Sears and Wards knew exactly what rural folks needed and wanted, even though folks sometimes didn’t realize they needed or wanted an item until they saw it in the catalog. The country housewife became convinced that she had to spend money to do her housework more efficiently, to clothe her family properly, and to keep up with the times. Agricultural tools and machines, such as cream separators, pumps, gas engines, and corn shellers, which had been  too expensive were now within reach through the catalog. Mail-order had 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 mail-order 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 mail-order plow, raise his children in a mail-order house, and be buried at the end of his life under a mail-order tombstone.”

Probably the greatest beneficiaries of rural free delivery mail service, after the farmers themselves, were the mail order houses themselves. Catalogs were considered “educational” material and could be put into the farmer’s mailbox for the lower 2nd class postal rate. 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 mail carrier, who would buy a money order and send the order on its way. At first, packages over four pounds had to be picked up at the railroad station or freight express office, but in 1913, the government started Parcel Post service, and packages up to 11 pounds were delivered just like other mail. Within that first year of Parcel Post, mail orders increased about five times over previous years. By 1920, 50 to 70 pound packages could be sent through the U.S. Mail and over 100 million packages were shipped on rural routes that year.

By providing modern conveniences and stylish goods, the catalogs helped to improve rural life and eliminate the isolation of farm families.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

– Sam Moore

A few of the toys in the 1930-1931 Montgomery Ward Fall and Winter catalog. (In the author’s collection)

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