From the Archive: Mail Order Catalogs

by Tiffani Righero, Research Assistant, Local History Archive

Do you order items from catalogs? For many, catalog shopping is a thing of the past.  Instead, customers today are shopping online, and as a result, many companies have stopped printing catalogs.  However, a hundred years ago mail order catalogs were essential in many American lives.

In the late 1800s, Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., headquartered in Chicago, distributed their catalogs across the nation and provided a way for long distance customers to purchase their products.  For companies like Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail order catalogs increased sales greatly.  By 1895, Sears, Roebuck and Co. printed a 532-page catalog which brought sales to $750,000, nearly doubling from $400,000 just two years earlier.  Since specialized stores did not exist outside major cities, these catalogs offered rural residents, especially settlers in the West, a wide assortment of products so they could enjoy the same material items that city dwellers purchased.

Here are a few of the items available for purchase in 1894 and 1900. Need some handcuff for the local police department? Sears’ catalog was the place to look.

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How about a new reed organ for the parlor?  This one comes with a free 30 trial offer.

Men, notice some balding that needs covering? Ladies, need some bangs or a pompadour? This page, complete with a wig buying guide, was the answer to any hair woes.

How about some exercise equipment? Montgomery Ward & Co. offered Chest Weights on a pulley system similar to equipment you see in gyms today.

Have you ever noticed the same grave stones at cemeteries across the nation? That’s because many Americans ordered their stones from a catalog. Here are the options Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered.

You may be wondering about shipping costs on some of these considerably heavy items. Both Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs encouraged club orders.  Customers could get together with neighbors, friends, and family to combine their orders and save on shipping.

Take a look though these catalogs at the Local History Archive to determine what you might have purchased from a catalog over a hundred years ago.

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2 Responses to “From the Archive: Mail Order Catalogs”


  1. 1 Treloar Bower September 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    I’ve read that you could buy pre-fab house kits through these catalogues! And let’s not forget the very important after-life for the previous year’s catalogue: toilet paper in the outhouse!

  2. 2 Doug Ernest October 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Treloar is correct. Sears was one of the better known firms for kit homes, purchased through catalogs and numbering up to 30,000 pieces. Others in the business in the first part of the 20th century included Montgomery Ward, Radford, and Aladdin. Also in the field was the Chicago House Wrecking Co., which originally got its name because it received the bid to demolish the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, otherwise known as the “White City.” Later it changed its name to the less counterintuitive Harris Brothers Company.

    Doug


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