Days Gone By: Lost in the catalog

As far back as 1893, consumers had access to “big box stores.” No, they couldn’t run down to the local Wal-Mart and purchase whatever they needed at the moment’s notice. A broken pair of pliers could be replaced at the local hardware store, if they were lucky enough to live close to town and had transportation to get to the store. New clothes could be purchased uptown too – but again, they would need to be able to get uptown, and sometimes that was not so easy. Many families had no car and the ones who were fortunate enough to have one car often had only one driver – usually the father – who took the car to work. That meant the car was gone from home all day, and since the stores closed early in the evening, little buying was done after work.

Purchases were made differently then. Fewer items were bought, and durable goods tended to last longer and were repaired more often. Today’s “planned obsolescence” of goods that end up tossed in the garbagewaste dump after a few months was unheard of in those days.

More frivolous items like sports equipment and bicycles weren’t bought on a regular basis and an anxious kid may have had to wait for a birthday or Christmas, if at all. Perhaps in the 1950s and ’60s, people – especially parents – were better able to distinguish the difference between “needs” and “wants.”

More expensive items were not bought on the spur of the moment. A pricey item such as the computer of those days, the typewriter, would be purchased in the same manner a car is now. It would require days or weeks of consideration and budgeting, and even then it would be postponed until one could get to the most inexpensive dealer.

But in those days, before the term “instant gratification” was ever conceived, even the most rural consumers had access to a world of shopping that was about as diverse as any of the huge Wal-Marts today – maybe bigger. They had the huge 700-plus page of Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.

Browsing the catalog was that era’s version of window shopping. True, once you decided to make a purchase, it would still take a week or more to receive the goods, but practically anything could be bought if a person had some money and some time.