The early history of mail-order catalogs – Recollections Blog

You may think you can buy all the things you can think of through your Amazon Prime app. One hundred and fifty years ago, this is what people thought as they turned the pages of the recent sears catalog. but instead of a few taps, the items sought were ordered by mail and patiently waited for over a period of weeks or months. and those who made such purchases counted their blessings. mail order catalogs changed the way women and families consumed goods and maintained their homes while changing the American retail landscape.

In addition to allowing rural households access to affordable goods (well over half of the popular population lived in rural America when Montgomery Ward released the first catalog), mail order shopping increased the power of women as consumers, a dynamic that exists in homes to this day. successful companies were industrial and commercial miracles of their time. Let’s take a look at the history of this form of frontier window display.

montgomery neighborhood

chicago was one of the major industrial centers in the mid to late 19th century and is where aaron montgomery ward started his mail order catalog empire. Legend has it that as a young man he tried his hand at door-to-door sales, gaining an understanding of rural life and how families obtained goods. he learned that products sold at general-supply stores often had such a high markup that most people had trouble buying them. and this assuming that the man responsible for such decisions could make the trip to the store.

ward was a man with a plan. He landed in Chicago in 1872 and went to work becoming a direct supplier to the public, allowing them to purchase products without markup. And here’s my favorite part: The now-famous catalog started out as a sheet of paper that sold 163 items and included steps on how to order.

was far from being an overnight success. Ward dealt with failing relationships from business partners, strong opposition from store owners, and enormous difficulties shipping items. but it was a solid plan with a large target audience. to help reassure the sometimes skeptical public, he was an early adopter of the “money-back guarantee” for which catalogs of the day would become so well known.

by 1883, one page and 163 articles had become 200 pages with more than 10,000 articles. Montgomery Ward was at the top of the food chain, but another enterprising man was about to amplify the competition.

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montgomery ward fun fact: rudolf the red-nosed reindeer was originally part of a marketing campaign run by the retailer after it became a window display.

enter years

The story of sears is another great American tradition. it involves the growth of the railroad, a stock of watches, a get-up-with-your-own-hands mentality, and big claims that went along with a belief in the importance of one’s word.

richard sears was as american as it gets. The son of a blacksmith and wagon maker, he began working for a railroad as a young man, heading west from Minnesota.

This is where the story typically begins in most blog posts you’ll read about sears. somehow the young man got hold of a box of watches. some sources say the box was delivered to the station he worked for and went unclaimed. Others claim that he befriended a young man who was unsuccessfully trying to sell the watches, prompting Sears to buy them at cost. In any case, he soon learned the potential of selling directly to customers and his skill as a salesperson.

sears continued to successfully sell watches along the railroad, learning as they went. he started using flyers to advertise and it is said that he was a copywriting genius from the beginning. With suitcases full of cash, he headed to Chicago in 1887 with an eye on expansion.

sears became a watch tycoon. The company evolved to sell exclusively by catalog in 1893. This quickly led to mail-order catalogs that also offered clothing and leisure goods in 1897, and then to dominate the industry for nearly a hundred years afterward.

fun sears fact: richard sears was a childhood friend of alonzo wilder, wife of readers’ favorite laura ingalls wilder.

what couldn’t you buy in a mail order catalogue?

aaron montgomery ward and richard sears brought their ingenuity to the american world of retail at the most optimal time possible. the industrial age was a force to be reckoned with and the amount of “stuff” and the amount of desire for it was a tsunami that swept through the states. not sure what was going on with more speed, manufacturing or buying.

Although mail-order catalogs started out modestly, they didn’t stay that way. And sadly I can’t think of anything better to go along with them than amazon prime as they were known to have every conceivable good available. and for a low price. we’re talking about tens of thousands of products, all on the pages of a printed catalog. some of these items may surprise you. Here’s a list to pique your curiosity:

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corsetsorganswagonsimpotence pillsbust creamfirearmsbaby chicksopium dyewigs for women and men (often made from human hair)jumpers with silk chest pockets (has anyone seen this before???)belt belts chastity and belts intended to improve male sexual performancestockingscurtainsmaternity corsetswriters

and much, much more

but wait…there’s more. How about a mail order catalog house?

When you imagine the portrait of the American dream, what do you see? pop culture has succeeded in forcing many of us to land in a magazine that includes a modest but spacious house with a beautiful lawn and, of course, a white picket fence. Well, a lot of people must have had the same idea in the 1900s, because Sears decided to start selling DIY house building kits in 1908.

this is truly remarkable. Until 1940, a family could buy everything needed to build a house, from easy-to-follow instructions to accessories. says npr:

“The sears modern home catalog debuted in 1908 and offered all the materials and plans needed to build a home. the pieces that arrived in the mail were meant to fit together like Legos, so buyers could build the houses themselves or hire contractors. “

npr says that between 1908 and 1940 approximately 70,000 such houses were purchased. and what is even more remarkable is that an estimated 70% is still standing today.

a personal touch

I enjoyed reading about the customer service support that early mail order catalogs provided. From a marketing standpoint, the priority of serving the consumer was front and center:

Our house policy is to provide the consumer with everything that we can save money on, products that can be delivered to your doorstep anywhere in the united states for less money than you can get from your local dealer, and Although our line covers almost everything that the consumer uses, there is hardly an item that does not admit savings of at least 15 percent and from there to 75 percent, not to mention the fact that our products are generally of a higher grade than those offered by the average retailer or catalog house, and we sincerely believe that a careful comparison will convince you that we sell more and better value products than you could get for the same money anywhere else in the states. united.

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sears, roebuck and co. historical catalogs. spring 1896

And the early catalogs sought to practice what they preached. Aaron Montgomery Ward was known to respond personally to letters and encouraged correspondence between customers and staff. And according to Country Living, Sears implemented the same attention to detail, ensuring that notes from customers would be answered:

“although richard warren sears was not known for mailing the letters ward sent, sears insisted that his employees write notes by hand instead of using a typewriter; some customers were offended when they received a letter that came from a machine…

In their response letters, employees offered congratulations on marriages, the arrival of a new baby or condolences for the loss of a family member. these messages were meaningful to many customers, and some even sent letters thanking employees for their support…

Customers gave updates on their lives and even explained why they hadn’t ordered in a long time. a farmer wrote to mr. room, detailing why he hadn’t made a purchase since the previous fall catalog: “Well, the cow kicked my arm and broke it and then my wife was sick, and there was the doctor’s bill. but now, thank god, that’s paid for and we’re all well again, and we have a beautiful baby, and please send the fleece hat number 29d8077…”

montgomery ward took such pride in their customer service that they shared the letters in their team newsletter:

eatons, the successful Canadian mail-order catalog, began with a similar emphasis on the personal touch. says virtual museum:

“eaton understood that many people were not used to ordering clothes by mail without being seen. the catalog assured its out-of-town customers that they would not only get quality products at the cheapest prices, but also the latest fashions: “a team of ladies with excellent dress judgment goes, card in hand, even your entire order is fulfilled, giving distant shoppers the benefit of in-depth knowledge of the latest fashions. they can buy for you better than yourself.”

The proliferation of mail-order handcuffs caused many owners to request such a service, but that’s a post for another time!

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