How did mail order come to the United States? | by Barry Silverstein | June 2022

In 1894, the Sears catalog offered mail-order goods

Engraving and printing office. Designed by Robert Lambdin., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

MMmore than a hundred years before Amazon and eBay existed, Sears pioneered mail order in the United States. The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, which began with watches and jewelry in 1893, expanded to include an endless variety of merchandise by 1894. Even more remarkable, Sears sold thousands of items exclusively by mail order – from clothing to stoves to kits for building entire homes – before opening its first retail store in 1924.

As early as 1744, none other than Benjamin Franklin suggested in a catalog of books that customers unable to visit his printing press could send orders for books to his attention, and that he would gladly send them by post. However, his mail-order business was not as intentional as other mail-order merchants. Tiffany’s “Blue Book” was published in 1845, Montgomery Ward published a catalog in 1872 (essentially a price list of over 150 products with ordering instructions), and Hammacher Schlemmer published a catalog in 1881.

Mail-order merchandising was closely tied to the expansion of the United States. Settlement of the western part of the country continued in earnest after the end of the Civil War, and the railroads expanded considerably in the late 1800s. RFD (Rural Free Delivery) was instituted by the U.S. Postal Service in 1896, so even remote parts of the country were included in federal government mail routes. Since mail-order publications could be delivered for as little as a penny per book through the postal service, mail-order merchants did not hesitate to produce voluminous catalogs.

Sears catalog cover, 1897. Claudette Gallant, CC0 Public Domain, via PublicDomainPictures.net

Sears, Roebuck & Co. may not have been first in mail order, but its catalog was considered the most comprehensive and innovative of any mail order merchant. Richard Sears, an enterprising man who started selling watches in 1886, teamed up with watchmaker Alvah Roebuck the following year to open a store in Chicago, then marketed watches by mail. In 1895, they were joined by clothing manufacturer/investor, Julius Rosenwald, who helped greatly expand the Sears catalog business.

When Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling merchandise beyond watches and jewelry, Richard Sears, who wrote much of the descriptive copy himself, described the Sears catalog as a “book of good business” and the “cheapest supply house in the world”. Initially, the Sears catalog had over 320 pages. Shortly after the first catalog was released, items from every conceivable category were added – appliances, prams, bicycles, books, clothes, dolls, sporting goods, groceries and, eventually, unwieldy items. such as automobiles, pianos, refrigerators, sewing machines, etc. stoves and washing machines.

“The Atlanta” (Model №247) Sears Catalog Home appearing in the 1921 Sears Roebuck Catalog. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps most unusual, the Sears catalog began offering kits for building homes from start to finish as early as 1908. Over four hundred house designs were available, with Sears supplying all of the pre-cut, ready-to-assemble materials needed to build each. It is estimated that Sears sold as many as 75,000 home kits from 1908 to 1940.

Incredibly, every item in the Sears catalog, no matter how big or small, has been delivered to customers across the country.

Just a few years after publishing its first catalog, Sears began publishing spring and fall catalogs as well as specialty catalogs in many categories. In 1897, the first color section appeared in a Sears catalog. The 1903 catalog included a satisfaction guarantee in the form of a handwritten note from Richard Sears. The 1905 catalog included samples of full-color textured wallpapers as well as a sample of materials for men’s suits. The following year’s catalog also included paint samples.

Sears catalog page from 1908. Public domain via PublicDomainPictures.net

By 1906, Sears had nearly $50 million in sales and approximately 9,000 employees, with a distribution center in Chicago covering three million square feet. As Americans became more mobile in the 1920s and could shop locally, the Sears mail-order business continued to flourish; the company already had an excellent reputation for selling quality merchandise at affordable prices along with excellent customer service.

The company also saw a bright future ahead of it in physical stores. Sears opened its first store in 1924 and just five years later had over 300 stores nationwide. Sears also pioneered store brands, introducing the Sears motor buggy as early as 1909 and the Sears “Auto-cycle” motorcycle in 1911. Although these branded items were short-lived, two other Sears brands – Craftsman, introduced in 1928 and Kenmore, introduced in 1929 – have survived to this day. Sears also entered the automobile insurance business in 1931 with the formation of Allstate Insurance. Later, Sears branched out into financial services, introducing the Discover credit card in 1985.

As the United States emerged from the Great Depression, Sears gave the country a Christmas present in 1933: the first “Sears Christmas Book.” With a wide range of gifts ranging from fruitcakes and tree ornaments to games and toys, the Christmas catalog published by Sears has become part of a cherished tradition for American holiday shoppers. Consumers often referred to the catalog as the “Wish Book,” but it wasn’t until 1968 that Sears renamed the Christmas Book the “Wish Book.” Proof of its enduring popularity over the years, the 1933 edition of the Christmas Book contained 87 pages in total – 62 pages of gifts for adults and 25 pages of toys, but the 1968 wish book was almost seven times larger. , comprising 605 pages in total. — 380 pages of gifts for adults and 225 pages of toys.

The 1960s brought with them unprecedented retail competition for Sears. Although it is the flagship store for many malls, Sears has begun to lose its luster to Kmart, Target and Walmart. In 1993, Sears discontinued its main print catalog. Telling a sign of the times, Amazon.com made its first book shipment in 1995. The Sears Wish Book moved to an online catalog in 1998.

The retail competition eventually overtook Sears. After a merger with Kmart in 2005, Sears was unable to maintain its retail success of previous years. In October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy. The company has been rapidly closing stores since then; only about 20 Sears stores remain in the United States with a website, Sears.com.

Historically, the Sears catalog was as much a reflection of American life over time as a catalog of merchandise. Despite the decline of this great American retail icon, there is no doubt that the Sears catalog will remain one of the greatest examples of mail order in history.

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