- Shopping catalogues were a popular way to buy goods and have them shipped directly to your home in the 20th century.
- At the forefront of the mail-order industry was Richard Sears with his now-famous Sears catalogue.
- The Sears catalogue sold women’s hats, suits, underwear, musical instruments, paint, and even Christmas gifts.
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These days, many turn to Amazon when they need to make a simple purchase.
While Amazon is a relatively new business changing the way we consume products, the model itself isn’t necessarily new. People have been buying and shipping merchandise to their homes for decades. Instead of scrolling through products on a website, they would flip through the pages of a hefty shopping catalogue.
At the forefront of this industry was the Sears catalogue that would often be several pages long, offering a wide array of merchandise to choose from.
From musical instruments to men’s underwear, this is what the pages of the famous Sears catalogue looked like throughout the 20th century.
Although Benjamin Franklin invented the mail-order business in America in 1744, it wasn’t until the first Montgomery Ward catalogue was published in 1872 that the mail-order industry really took off.
The mail-order business in American started with the Founding Fathers. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson often bought wine and furniture through catalogues, and Benjamin Franklin created the first book catalogue in the states.
It wasn’t until Aaron Montgomery Ward created his catalogue company in 1872, though, that the industry really boomed. The Montgomery Ward & Co. catalogue quickly became popular among consumers all across the country, sparking many to follow in Ward’s footsteps.
Richard Sears was one of the people who followed Ward’s success when he created the first Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue in 1888, selling just watches and jewellery.
Richard Sears illustrated the cover himself and wrote some famous slogans including “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone” and the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth.”
By 1894, Sears expanded the book to offer a wide range of merchandise.
Sears’ main goal was to ensure every customer would come back. In fact, he included the words “We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer” on the front page of several catalogues. In 1903, one catalogue even read, “Your money back if you are not satisfied.” This mission led Sears to offer a more diverse selection of goods that appealed to a broader audience.
The catalogue grew to sell women’s clothing, like these “ladies’ and misses’ underskirts.”
“The newest creations … copies of high-priced silk skirts made of durable and finest fabrics … while our prices are very low, the qualities are not surpassed,” the catalogue reads here, selling underskirts for as low as $US1.18.
Women even had the choice to buy their hats through the Sears catalogue.
The exquisite hats ranged from $US2.68 to $US3.69 and came in a variety of styles to fit every woman.
The fashion offerings in the catalogue changed with the times, updating the outdated skirts and hats to fashionable suits for women.
“Wear them two ways; with or without a blouse,” the Sears catalogue reads here. “Get more than your money’s worth in every one.”
Sears also offered men’s clothing like this “summer underwear” for all body types.
This catalogue page is selling “extra fine quality genuine French” underwear for just 50 cents, describing it as “lightweight and soft as silk.”
The catalogue even sold specialty sporting goods and outfits.
At the time, you could also buy furniture, bicycles, and eyeglasses through the catalogue.
As if all that wasn’t enough, musical instruments were also for sale in the catalogues, like this Columbia Graphophone Grand.
The Columbia Graphophone Grand, a talking machine, was for sale for $US69.95. The catalogue described the machine as “the greatest, the loudest, the most complete and perfect talking machine ever assembled.”
To entice customers all year long, Richard Sears also created a fall and spring catalogue.
Sears also published specialty catalogues which focused on photography and art supplies.
Sears even published its first Christmas-focused catalogue in 1933, calling it the “Wish Book.”
The “Wish Book” grew to be over 700 pages, selling toy cars, fruitcakes, train sets, chocolates, and even wine-making kits. The company tried to resurrect the “Wish Book” in 2017, but it was a flop, and the company discontinued it altogether.
In 1897, Sears published its first colour section, selling shoes in multiple colours.
Sears continued to experiment with colours in the catalogue, printing coloured and textured wallpaper samples in the book in 1905 and paint samples in 1908.
Many say the Sears catalogue was an accurate and historical record of fashion, design, and American taste.
At its peak, the Sears company received 75,000 mail order requests a day and was servicing over 6 million customers in the US.
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