History Matters: Mail-order Catalogues

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter Plus, you’ll receive our 10 Essential Genealogy Research Forms PDF as a special thank you!

Get Your Free Genealogy Forms

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

For our ancestors living in rural America—where half the US population resided as late as 1920—mail-order catalogs served “not only as a marketing tool, but also as school readers, almanacs, symbols of abundance and progress, and objects of fantasy and desire,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago (a city that was home to both Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck). Less grandly, mail-order catalogs also served our forebears as toilet paper. The introduction of coated stock for color pictures in the 1897 Sears catalog was a blow to outhouses everywhere.
The idea of shopping through the mail dates at least to 1498, when Venetian bookseller Aldus Manutius compiled a catalog of texts for sale. English gardener William Lucas sold seeds and nursery items through catalogs in 1667.  Long Island grower William Frinch did the same in the American Colonies in 1771. Benjamin Franklin was a pioneer in mail order, as in almost everything else, selling “near 600 volumes in most faculties and sciences” by catalog in 1744. Franklin is credited with the first promise of satisfaction guaranteed, writing: “Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present.”
Modern mail-order catalogs began with Aaron Montgomery Ward, a New Jersey native born in 1844. Ward arrived in Chicago shortly after the Civil War and got a job with the predecessor of today’s Marshall Field & Co. After a stint as a salesman in St. Louis and the South, Ward returned to the Windy City and started Montgomery Ward & Co. in 1872.
His first catalog was a single sheet of paper crammed with 163 items. Echoing Franklin, Ward’s promise of “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” won over wary rural customers, and his catalog grew to 32 pages in 1874, 152 pages in 1876, and nearly 1,000 pages in 1897. By then, his employees numbered more than a thousand, his annual sales reached about $7 million, and his company was Chicago’s biggest postal customer.
With Montgomery Ward discontinuing its catalog in 1985, the oldest continually published mail-order catalog now comes from Hammacher Schlemmer. Before the Civil War, 12-year-old William Schlemmer had begun selling tools in front of his uncle’s hardware store in New York City’s Bowery District. In 1867, Schlemmer and Alfred Hammacher bought out the uncle. They expanded into mail-order in 1881, publishing a catalog that was a hardcover book. By 1912, it weighed in at 1,112 pages. So beloved was the company that it inspired a song, “Hammacher Schlemmer, I Love You,” sung by Fred Allen in a 1929 Broadway musical, The Little Show: “If you want to buy a bassinet or buy a hog/Don’t be in a fog, use our catalog.”
The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog was the first place Americans saw many then-cutting-edge products: the pop-up toaster (1930), electric shaver (1934), steam iron (1948), electric toothbrush (1955), microwave oven (1968), telephone answering machine (1968), cordless phone (1975) and food processor (1976). “Mr. Coffee” chose the catalog to introduce its drip coffeemaker, in 1973.
But America’s favorite catalog came from Sears, Roebuck and Co., whose compendiums would be known simply as “the Big Book” and, at Christmas, “the Wish Book.” Born in Stewartville, Minn., in 1863, Richard Warren Sears was a boyhood friend of Almanzo Wilder, future husband of author Laura Ingalls Wilder. But Sears’ early life was hardly Little House on the Prairie: After his father went broke and died, the 17-year-old Sears learned telegraphy and went to work for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway in Redwood Falls, Minn.
An attempted scam in 1886 changed his career path. A shipment of gold pocket watches arrived for a local retailer who hadn’t ordered them. When the savvy retailer refused delivery, Sears cut a deal with the watch wholesaler, who agreed to let him keep the watches and any proceeds above $12 a watch. Within six months, at $14 a watch, Sears’ business had cleared $5,000—seed money for a mail-order watch enterprise in Minneapolis. He soon hired Alvah Roebuck as a watch repairman and moved the booming company to Chicago.
In 1889, Sears sold the company for $100,000 and retired to Iowa. But he quickly got bored and re-teamed with Roebuck to start a new mail-order company. Inspired by the success of Montgomery Ward, Sears branched out beyond watches and jewelry and soon overtook his crosstown competitor. By 1894, his Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone (also billed as the Cheapest Supply House on Earth) was more than 500 pages, with most of the copy written by Sears himself. Sears’ catalog soon offered sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, clothing and even eyeglasses (with a self-test for “old sight, near sight and astigmatism”).
Specialty Sears catalogs sold pianos and organs, books, photography supplies and Edison’s “talking machines.” The 1905 catalog boasted not only full color but texture—wallpaper samples and swatches for men’s suit fabric. Between 1908 and 1940, more than 70,000 ready-to-assemble Sears Modern Homes were shipped by railroad boxcar across the continent. Many included such luxuries as central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity.
Roebuck had sold his interest in the company in 1895 to Julius Rosenwald, and Sears followed him out of the business in 1908. Sears’ copywriting duties were picked up by, among others, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who would later create Tarzan). Among the models who appeared in the Sears catalog before their Hollywood fame were Gloria Swanson, Lauren Bacall and Stephanie Powers.
By 1919, boosted by Rural Free Delivery in 1896 and parcel post in 1913, Americans were spending more than $500 million via mail-order catalogs—half of that with Sears and Ward alone. But slower growth in the 1920s led the catalog giants to expand their “brick and mortar” operations. Sears opened its first store in 1925 and had more than 300 by 1929.
Sears stopped producing its “Big Book” in 1993. In 2000, Montgomery Ward went out of business. But the next generation of mail order had already begun: In 1994 Jeff Bezos incorporated a company called It even sells toilet paper.

In Time

1872 – Montgomery Ward issues its first catalog

1881 – Hammacher Schlemmer catalog begins

1884 – Eaton’s department store in Canada publishes a 34-page catalog

1886 – Richard Sears starts selling watches

1896 – Sears begins charging 25 cents for its catalog (the fee was applied to orders exceeding $10)

1904 – Spiegel expands into mail order

1913 – US Post Office begins parcel post

1963 – JC Penney issues its first catalog

1985 – Ward drops its catalog

1993 – Sears discontinues its Big Book catalog


Fun Facts

• Among Montgomery Ward’s first catalog customers were members of the Patrons of Husbandry, also called the Grange, a farmers’ organization that liked the idea of buying direct—with more generous credit terms—rather than through local middlemen.
• Like Sears, from 1909 to 1931, Ward also sold prefabricated kit houses, called Wardway Homes. A typical mail-order house contained 12,000 pieces.
• Hammacher Schlemmer’s reputation for innovative products extended to Russia, where, in preparation for the Russian Revolution, in 1916 the government ordered one of every piece of hardware in the 1,000-page catalog—to use as masters for manufacturing knockoffs.
From the September 2012 Family Tree Magazine.