Sears Roebuck Catalog

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SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG. In 1886, Richard W. Sears, a railroad agent in North Redwood, Minnesota, purchased an unclaimed shipment of watches, which he sold for a profit to other agents. He ordered more watches and, within a year, he expanded into jewelry, moving his fledgling business to Chicago. His company eventually grew into the largest retail business in the world.

Mail-order companies answered midwestern farmers' prayers for a chance to buy products at lower prices than those charged by small-town stores. Montgomery Ward had started a dry goods business in 1872 that began to publish a catalog and by 1888 had annual sales of $1.8 million. Sears hired Alvah C. Roebuck as a watchmaker in 1887, and the two became partners, officially becoming Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893. Expanding into numerous fields of merchandise, they produced a general catalog in 1896 and attained sales in 1900 of over $11 million, surpassing Montgomery Ward.

Sears provided the advertising genius for the firm, designing a cover that proclaimed Sears "The Cheapest Supply House on Earth." The huge catalogs, over 500 pages, made extravagant claims for the performance and value of their products, particularly patent medicines. Sears would sometimes advertise products the company had not yet purchased.

Julius Rosenwald, a men's suit manufacturer, joined the firm in 1895, combining his manufacturing and organizational talents with Sears's promotional brilliance. Rosenwald reorganized the shipping department, attracting the attention of Henry Ford, who copied the Sears

assembly line for his automobile plant. Rosenwald took over in 1910, continuing to grow the business while taking a more cautious advertising stance. He even phased out patent medicines in 1913.

The catalog displayed an incredible array of items, from groceries to cars and even prefabricated "house kits." As an example of the company's methods, when Sears sold houses, the company owned a lumber mill, a lumberyard, and a millwright plant. The house kit even included a kitchen sink. At its peak, the Sears catalog had 11 million customers, produced 75 million catalogs a year, and had annual sales over $250 million. It reached a record of 180,000 orders in one day.

As more and more people moved to the city, catalog sales started to decline in 1927. General Robert E. Wood, the new leader, quickly moved Sears into the retail store business, while trying to maintain the catalog business. In 1931 catalog sales took second place to retail store sales at Sears, and although the catalog continued for many years, it eventually became unprofitable. In 1993, after several years of losses, Sears closed the catalog operation, ending a unique chapter of American history.


Hendrickson, Robert. The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America's Great Department Stores. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Hoge, Cecil C., Sr. The First Hundred Years Are the Toughest: What We Can Learn from the Competition between Sears and Wards. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1988.


See alsoRetailing Industry .