Tuesday, Jun 26, 2012
by Ned Wazowski
The Sears & Roebuck Catalog, 1893-1993
From clothing to carriages and bridles to beaver traps, if it wasn’t in the catalog, it probably didn’t exist.
In the late 1800s, it was difficult for rural Americans to get the supplies they needed for a price they could afford. Monthly trips into town to visit the General Store and farmers still couldn’t get everything they needed or wanted. In 1888, a railroad station agent in Minnesota changed all of that.
That year, Richard Sears bought an unwanted shipment of watches and sold them to other station agents for a tidy profit. He ordered more and put together a printed mailer to advertise them under the name R.W. Sears Watch Co. Sears moved to Chicago the next year, found business partner Alvah C. Roebuck, and then changed the company’s name to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1893.
By 1894, the Sears & Roebuck catalog was 322 pages, and included everything from sewing machines to automobiles. The company called itself the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth” and called the catalog a “Book of Bargains.” And by today’s standards, it seems they were right. The 1897 catalog sold a quarter carat diamond ring for $15.95 and Winchester rifles for $10.75.
In 1933, Sears & Roebuck made writing letters to Santa easier with the publication of a Christmas catalog known as the Wishbook. Well into the 1970s (when they dropped the name Roebuck), kids would pour over those catalogs to drool over toys and gifts. I know I dog-eared the pages for G.I Joe playsets in the 80s, even going so far as to tear out the pages and send them directly to Santa. It never hurts to provide reference material.
The Sears & Roebuck catalog launched a number of careers: Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Gloria Swanson, Susan Dey, Cheryl Tiegs and Stephanie Powers were all catalog models. And Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs was the head of the stenographic department of Sears & Roebuck.
Production of the catalog stopped in 1993, but memories of the thick book of glossy pages linger. Especially when it’s time to make your list and check it twice.