The first Sears Roebuck catalogs

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Sears Roebuck catalog
The first Sears Roebuck catalogs were issued in the late 1800s, when travel by railroad was prominent
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The first Sears Roebuck catalogs are a large part of consumer history.

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Thus did the first Sears Roebuck catalogs reassure customers that shopping by mail and waiting patiently for delivery constituted a safe commercial venture. While the approximately 40 percent of Americans living in shop-filled cities may have been skeptical about what came to be known as The Farmer's Bible or The Wish Book, the 60 percent of the population living in small rural towns, on farms, or in the middle of nowhere at the turn of the century needed little convincing. 

How catalogs started

Richard Sears, a Minnesota railway agent, had spent leisure time perusing other catalogs offering to supply Americans' needs and, with his partner Alvah Roebuck, assembled a mail-order catalog of watches and jewelry in 1881. Following the model of earlier mail-order Montgomery Ward, who issued his first catalog in 1872, Sears rapidly added any and all remaindered or distressed goods that might appeal to consumers with no stores available. By 1897 the Sears Roebuck catalog ran over 700 pages and contained almost everything needed to fill a house, store or office in the growing country.

The Importance of Catalogs

To understand the impact of the first Sears Roebuck catalogs, it helps to know who its customers were in the 1890s. First, they were mobile and heading west. The Civil War had ended only 25 years before; many who headed west had bitter memories of ruined land and communities left behind. Many others were new immigrants, hungry for land and freedom from societies that kept them poor, no matter how hard they worked. Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona were not yet states. The Dakotas, Washington, Idaho and Oregon had just acquired statehood. Reliable railroads made rapid expansion of settled areas possible, and reliable postal service kept settlers in touch with home—and the burgeoning mail-order business.

The 1897 Catalog

The 1897 catalog, available in reprint, shows what new and established residents of rural America needed to live and prosper, and it lives up to its Wish Book nickname. Groceries include long lists of flavoring extracts, necessary leavens and products from the relatively new industry of commercial canning. Drugs follow, offering a wide range of homeopathic as well as conventional patent medicines; those living in rural isolation often coped with illness and injury alone and a full cupboard of remedies (including laudanum and Peruvian Wine of Coca) increased the chances of survival. Rural doctors also surely ordered from the catalog.

Tools of all kinds comprised a large share of catalog pages, including well, wagon and domestic hardware as well as tools needed for home-building and farming. Both stoves, wood- and coal-fired, and refrigerators (the modern word for ice-boxes—Sears insisted its merchandise was not only reliable but the latest thing) required serious consideration and expense; before a customer laid out $10 to 15 for a stove, he wanted to know about it in detail! 

Family Clothing

Large sections of the catalog devoted to family clothing placed particular emphasis on the latest styles and fashions. Recognition that clothes were often made at home meant pages devoted to yard-goods, sewing notions, millinery supplies, shoe-repair supplies and sewing machines. Other soft goods addressed the issues of isolation and boredom experienced by many settlers. Books were sold singly or in libraries, with classics and Horatio Alger in prominence, equipping home-schooled children as well as their parents.

Musical instruments abounded, from flutes and mandolins to parlor pianos. How pleasing to imagine a new town just solid enough to support its own band and perhaps a uniformed baseball team, all supplied by the catalog. Genuine haviland china, a $15 living room suit, and a wide variety of increasingly-popular bicycles testify to the social movement toward respectability. At the same time, saddles, wagons, harness, pistols and rifles serve as reminders of how hard-won respectability and leisure might be.

Sears Roebuck Catalogs in the 1900s

Sears Roebuck catalogs continued to provide a major lifeline between commerce and rural residents for many years. In 1908 Sears launched an experimental venture that changed not only the contents of homes but homes themselves. Houses by mail provided home blueprints, hardware and pre-cut lumber to established and prospective homeowners across the country. The most famous of these houses is probably the Yorba Linda birthplace of Richard Nixon, where visitors are informed was built by Nixon's father from a Sears House kit. House plans and kits remained available from Sears Roebuck into the early 1940s. 

Sears continues to stay abreast of American fashions and trends, returning to brick-and-mortar stores and a breadth of brand names. Oddly, Sears now moves against a massive tide of shop-by-mail/computer ventures; perhaps the company once again recognizes that its continued success is in part linked to addressing isolation and boredom, providing real stores to shop in as other department stores fade. Just like the first Sears Roebuck catalogs, surely this period of Sears merchandising will eventually offer a glimpse, not just of customers but of a society, its needs and wants.

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