Those remarkable mail-order catalogs

Were you one of the thousands, probably millions, who did their holiday shopping online this year? Remember life before eBay, Amazon and all forms of Internet shopping?

A century ago nearly all of America shopped via the mail-order catalog. Thousands of items were depicted and described in a wondrous volume literally read cover-to-cover by millions of people.

The small dream that became an economic empire may have started with Benjamin Franklin as early as the 18th century.

Franklin’s offering was no Sears & Roebuck catalog, but it was a viable concept. Around 1744 he printed a small catalog for cast-iron fireplace stoves. The brochure-like booklet included one page of engraved illustrations depicting such stoves. Franklin offered a guarantee to his customers:

“Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present.”

 In 1765, Pennsylvania clockmaker Jacob Gorgas produced an eight-page brochure-catalog complete with illustrations of designs and scenes which could be engraved on the faces of clocks and pocket watches.

Still, most merchants, craftsmen and importers of the latter 18th century relied on newspaper advertising and broadsides for their commercial promotion.

A number of factors came into play during the 1860s to enhance the idea of mail-order and accompanying catalogs. For one thing the Homestead Act of 1862 provided for the federal postal system to deliver catalogs and similar publications at the rate of one cent per pound. Along with that was the industrial expansion which followed the Civil War, and the country’s ever-westward growth.

“You could send the catalogs by mail even if your goods had to go by canal boat, coastal schooner, steamship, or railroad,” wrote Morgan Towne in Treasures in Truck and Trash. “The customer response to an illustrated catalog was immediate and gratifying.”

In 1872 a 28-year-old Chicago business man, Aaron Montgomery Ward, began distributing a single sheet catalog. He was optimistic that people in distant locations would buy sight unseen from him. Two years later it had expanded to 32 pages and by 1876 it had zoomed into a 152-page catalog jammed with all sorts of things with Ward writing all of the copy.

America was still relatively rural and isolated in the 1880s. The major links with the outside world at the time were railroads and the U.S. mail. Hence the mail-order business and the connecting catalogs offered the better of these two worlds.

As Ward moved forward, another Chicago resident, Richard Sears, began using a printed mailer to advertise mail-order jewelry and watches. By the early 1890s Sears would be teamed up with A.C. Roebuck with an ambitious plan to sell goods by mail all over the country. Their catalog was equally ambitious offering sewing machines, sporting goods, firearms, buggies, and even musical instruments.

By 1896, the year of the Rural Free Delivery Act taking mail to the farm lands, Sears and Roebuck were doing both a spring and a fall catalog. Although they charged 25 cents each for the catalogs, it was offset by a discount on the cost of any order over $10. There was also the beginning of Sears specialty catalogs starting with books and stationery and moving on to bicycles by 1898.

In a large way both Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck through mail-order were the Internet of their time. Residents from all parts of the U.S.A. were buying merchandise based merely on illustrations and descriptions because they trusted the system.

Sears and Roebuck were even selling wallpaper by 1901 and publishing a special catalog containing samples of it. Then came special catalogs on safes and paints. In 1904 the mail-order mainstream was joined by Joseph Spiegel. Ultimately, unlike Sears and Roebuck, which began adding retail stores, Spiegel would close retail stores in favor of mail-order operations.

Just when the public began to think the mail-order selections were so vast that nothing could be added, Sears and Roebuck began selling home-building kits. Starting in 1908 the so-called Sears Modern Homes were offered. Basically they were huge ready-to-assemble packages sent by railroad car. The giant kits included everything needed to build a house including directions and nails. The theory was that friends and family would gather and put the house together in a barn-raising fashion. Over the years Sears sold more than 1,000 of them. Initially the kits ranged in price from $650 to $2,500.

According to the distinguished Encyclopedia of Chicago, it was estimated that Americans were buying $500 million worth of goods annually from mail-order companies by 1919. Roughly half of that amount was being taken in by the catalog kings—Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.

The thick, household mail-order catalogs had become so Americanized by the late 1920s that legendary artist Norman Rockwell was even doing covers for the Sears version. By the 1930s child movie star Shirley Temple was modeling apparel and mail-order catalogs could be found in millions of American homes.

In 1943 the Sears News Graphic observed that such a mail-order catalog “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” Just a few years later the Grolier Society in their volume, One Hundred Influential American Books, adoringly stated, “the mail order catalog has been perhaps the greatest single influence in increasing the standard of American middle-class living.”

As if mail-order weren’t already in the midst of middle America, outfits like Sears began using household names like Roy Rogers, Ted Williams, and Gene Autry to appear in sections of the catalog, bringing instant recognition.

By the 1960s experts were beginning to say in print that collecting old catalogs might be a very good idea.

“Here is a new field of Americana collecting that is really just beginning to open up as more and more persons of responsibility recognize the vital contributions merchandise catalogs made to an understanding of America’s past,” wrote John Mebane in 1964.

His book, Treasure At Home, added, “Thousands of old American trade catalogs today are finding their way into museums, historical society conditions, and the hands of individuals who recognize their value and treat them tenderly and respectfully.”

The beginning of the end for major mail-order catalogs came in the1980s. In 1985 Montgomery Ward printed its final general merchandise catalog. The following year Sears moved from its traditional general catalog to separate issues for various products. In 1993 Sears decided to stop producing a general catalog altogether, although they continued with various specialty issues.

While there are still lots of specific market catalogs still around, the great general mail-order catalog seems to have been left behind in the 20th century.

Click here to discuss this story and more in the message boards.