Sears, Roebuck Catalog

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Sears, Roebuck Catalog

From the time of its origin in 1888, the Sears, Roebuck catalog was more than just a listing of store merchandise. Called the "Big Book" or the "Wish Book" by the millions of people who eagerly awaited its arrival each year, the catalog brought the wider world into the isolated homes of rural America. From it, working-class Americans who lived far from cities or even shops, could order anything from shoes, clothes, furniture, and appliances to wagons and machinery. More than this, they could keep up to date on advances in equipment, technology, and fashion and even take a peek at a drawing of a member of the opposite sex in underwear. By bringing honesty and dependability to mail-order shopping, Sears, Roebuck and Company was able to reach out to the seventy percent of Americans who lived in the rural United States at the end of the nineteenth

century. Many of these Americans joked that the Bible and the Sears, Roebuck catalog were the only books that they read.

Richard W. Sears (1863–1914) was working as a station agent for the railroad, passing the time by reading the various catalogs that came through on mail trains, when he began to think that he could develop his own successful mail-order business. He and his partner Alvah C. Roebuck (1864–1948) issued their first catalog in 1888, selling jewelry and watches. Each year the two expanded their catalog and their inventory, offering free trials and money-back guarantees to boost sales. Cleverly, they designed their catalog a little smaller than that of their biggest competitor, Montgomery Ward. That way, they reasoned, the Sears, Roebuck catalog would be placed on top when the catalogs were stacked. By 1895, the company had incorporated, and the catalog had grown to over 500 pages. It now included clothes, guns, farm equipment, and furniture. In 1908, Sears and Roebuck began to sell mail-order houses, with a selection of 450 models. Houses were shipped in thousands of parts, with detailed instructions for building. By the early 1900s, Sears, Roebuck and Company was earning $10 million in sales.

The Sears, Roebuck catalog continued to represent a successful mail-order business for over a century. In 1993, finally overwhelmed by competition and changing shopping habits, the catalog portion of Sears, Roebuck and Company closed. Although a catalog can still be ordered from the company, the Sears Web site now continues the tradition of the famous mail-order catalog.

—Tina Gianoulis

For More Information

Emmett, Boris, and John E. Jeuck. Catalogues and Counters: A History of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

Gustaitis, Joseph. "Closing the Book." American History Illustrated (Vol. 28, no. 3): pp. 36-42.

Hicks, L. Wayne. "The House Is in the Mail." American History (Vol. 35, April 2000): pp. 38-43.

Liggett, Lori. "The Founders of Sears, Roebuck and Company." Bowling Green State University American Culture Studies Program. (accessed January 2, 2002).

McGinty, Brian. "Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck." American History Illustrated (Vol. 21, no. 2, June 1986): pp. 34-8. (accessed January 2, 2002).

Worthy, James C. Shaping An American Institution. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1984.