Do you remember the excitement you felt when the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived? The glossy pages were filled with toy trucks, dolls, Tinker Toys, model airplanes, electric trains, and more. You spent hours thumbing through the pages and making your Christmas Wish List. Generations before you had felt that same excitement, but adults were the target audience then.
How did it all begin? In 1886, a young watch salesman from Minnesota, Richard Warren Sears, had come to Chicago. Not long after he had arrived, Sears took out an advertisement in a Chicago paper for a watch repairman. A young man from Indiana, Alvah Roebuck, applied and was hired. In 1893, the two men become partners in a company which would become a major American retailer, Sears and Roebuck.
In 1888, Sears began issuing a general catalog on top of his frequent mailings. The 1894 annual edition had 325 pages. Products in the catalog ranged from guns to sewing machines to bicycles, furniture, and “medicine” to cure various ailments. Sears, always a salesman, wrote all the copy himself.
By 1895, the catalog had grown to 530 pages. Product lines had expanded and included rifles, pocket knives, and canned goods. By 1905, you could even buy an automobile or a house. The ready-to-assemble houses continued to be available until 1940.
In 1906, Sears opened its catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in Chicago. In 1933, Sears published the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the “Sears Wishbook.” Featuring pages of toys and gifts, this catalog is probably the one you best remember.
Several factors contributed to the success of the Sears mail-order business. Almost any product which could be shipped was available. The ads for medicinal supplies promised astonishing results. The clothing featured the newest designs and fashions. In the agricultural areas on the Great Plains, the prices were below the prices of the company store. Delivery was reliable due to the national network of railroads and the postal service.
By 1948, Sears and Roebuck had opened hundreds of physical stores. The first store, which opened in 1925, was in Chicago. In the same year, the second store was opened in Evansville, Indiana. Soon there were Sears and Roebuck stores in nearly every American city and town. Customers could purchase items in the stores or pick-up their orders in the catalog department.
The Sears mail-order business continued to thrive for many years. However, Sears discontinued its general merchandise catalog in 1993. In 2007, Sears brought back the popular Wish Book. Today a Sears customer can order merchandise online and have it delivered to his doorstep.
—By Karen Centowski
To see a video about the history of the Sears catalogue, go to Mr. Sears’ Catalog—You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dyx4WzcND14.