Sears Roebuck Catalogue

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Sears Roebuck Catalogue

Known affectionately as "a department store in a book," "the farmer's wishbook," and the "farmer's Bible," the Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue, while not the first of its kind in retail merchandising, was certainly the most famous and the one that inspired the most imitations.

Mail order catalogues—visual and textual descriptions of a store's inventory in print form—were used to select and purchase mass-produced goods. Although the first publication resembling a mail order catalogue was supposedly a mail circular distributed by Ben Franklin in 1744, modern versions became popular in America during the Gilded Age. Montgomery Ward established the modern mail-order industry in 1872, selling his wares, selected primarily for the needs of farming families, through the mail.

Inspired by Ward's success in rural America, Richard W. Sears, a watch salesman who joined forces with Alvah Roebuck, a watch repairman, expanded the line of goods offered to country families, launching his company and publishing his first catalogue in 1886. By 1893 Sears began publishing his catalogue on a regular basis, dubbing it the Consumer's Guide in 1894. In the first decade of the twentieth century the Sears catalogue offered over 10,000 different items dealing with every aspect of life from birth to death, including firearms, sewing machines, clothing, bicycles, patent medicines, pianos, and eventually even houses.

The early years of the Sears catalogue were significant in bringing a largely urban and mass-manufactured way of life to rural areas that had until then been relatively isolated from metropolitan goods and culture. In 1897, 318,000 copies of the Sears catalogue were sent to the Midwest; by 1908, 3.6 million copies were sent out. Sears's drawings and verbal descriptions of the items helped sell these otherwise unexaminable goods, through the mail, to customers far away. The success of the mail order business was aided by governmental policies, including the advertiser's penny postcard in 1871, Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in 1898, and parcel post in 1913. Both Sears and Ward took advantage of these policies, remaining mail-order competitors well into the twentieth century. In fact, Sears consistently published a catalogue smaller than Ward's so that it would sit on top of his rival's book in the family home.

As historian Thomas Schlereth pointed out, "With the spread of mail-order merchandising, people who had lived, to a large extent, on a barter or an extended credit system now became immersed in a money economy." Rural merchants, feeling their businesses threatened, decried the use of mail-order catalogues, trying to convince local townspeople that the merchandise offered within was inferior and its delivery unreliable. But Sears allayed people's fears, establishing the familiar "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" policy. His catalogue impacted rural life in other ways as well. No longer were farmers completely reliant on the food that they grew themselves or procured from local produce merchants. Instead, they could purchase prepackaged food through the mail. The catalogues also presented middle-class styles and tastes and made them accessible to everyone in the country. Further, catalogues were often used as educational tools: children practiced their math by computing the total price of orders, became literate by reading the endless product descriptions, and learned geography by studying the maps inside.

In 1946 the Sears catalogue was selected by the Grolier Society as one of the 100 outstanding American books of all time. By the 1970s Sears was distributing 65 million copies of its main catalogue—by then a familiar adjunct to Sears retail salesrooms—along with an additional 250 million tabloid catalogues, per year. The 1897 catalogue has even been successfully reprinted, a testament to its endurance as a cultural icon and as a source of American nostalgia.

The Sears catalogue is perhaps most significant in establishing the viability of mail-order trade, no longer requiring face-to-face interaction between buyer and seller. Thousands of other catalogues sprang up during the twentieth century, including those selling clothing, jewelry, gourmet food, plants, herbs, and art supplies, among other things. Although still a source of revenue for Sears in the 1990s, the mail-order catalogue had paved the way for similarly anonymous sales institutions, such as televised shopping channels like QVC and the Home Shopping Network, and commercial Internet sites.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Cohn, David L. The Good Old Days: A History of American Morals and Manners as Seen Through the Sears, Roebuck Catalogues 1905 to the Present. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1940.

Schlereth, Thomas J. "Country Stores, County Fairs, and Mail-Order Catalogues: Consumption in Rural America." Simon Bronner, ed. Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920. Winterthur, Delaware, Winterthur Museum, 1989.

Weil, Gordon L. Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A. The Great American Catalogue Store and How It Grew. New York, Stein and Day, 1977.