- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
In 1887, Richard W. Sears hired Alvah C. Roebuck to repair watches while he established a mail-order business to sell the watches using a free catalog. Two years later, R.W. Sears sold the watch business.
In 1893, Sears, along with Roebuck, founded another mail-order operation known as Sears, Roebuck & Company. Two years later, Julius Rosenwald bought out Roebuck’s interest, but the company retained his name. Richard Sears, meanwhile, wrote the company’s soon-to-be-famous catalogs.
The advent of Rural Free Postal Service Delivery in 1896 and Parcel Post in 1913 made distribution of the catalogs economical. The postal system classified mail-order publications as “aids in the dissemination of knowledge,” qualifying the catalogs for the postage rate of 1 cent per pound.
Sears was able to send its catalogs and merchandise across the country to even the most isolated customers, selling a wide range of goods at low prices to people without access to retail outlets.
The 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue had 1,162 pages printed in font size eight. Customers were encouraged to “read the policies” and to forgo sending nuisance letters when the information was provided in the catalog.
Sears accepted “cash only — remit by post office money order, express money order, bank draft, cash, or stamps.” There were no installment payments. Shipping was by post office mail — registered recommended — or by freight.
A few of the products sold in 1902 are named below. As a reference, $1 in 1902 was equivalent to $30 in today’s money.
- A new price list for groceries came out every 60 days. They even sold Cracker Jacks at 82 cents for 24 packages! Groceries were discontinued in 1941.
- Sears manufactured guns and sold cartridges, automatic revolvers ($2.95), air shot rifles, derringers, shotguns, and more.
- There was a large section dedicated to horse supplies, harnesses, and saddles ($3.75 to $22.85), along with buggies and wagons.
- Farm goods ranged from cast iron pig troughs ($4.85) to horse-drawn stubble plows (the 12-inch model for $8.50), egg incubators, blacksmith tools, and windmills.
- Appliances in this era meant iceboxes, coal and wood stoves, and treadle sewing machines ($10.45). Sears sold silverware, dishes, linens, iron beds ($2.45 to $14.90), paint, and wallpaper.
- Domestic wares included stockings in cotton and wool, hats, corsets, suspenders, shoes, fabric (percale 10 cents per yard), and patterns.
Sears also had a range of interesting pseudo-medical and related products:
- Dr. Worden’s Female Pills (35 cents per box) are described as “a great blood purifier and nerve tonic; cures all diseases arising from a poor and wasted condition of the blood when worn down by overwork, worry, excesses, and indiscretions of living.”
- Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers (50 treatments for 35 cents) are described as “perfectly harmless when used in accordance with our directions.”
The wafers reportedly “produced a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion” (while slowly poisoning the user). At the time, a white complexion was a symbol of status.
- “If Nature has not favored you with that greatest charm, a symmetrically rounded bosom, full and perfect,” then for only $1.50, you could get either Bust Cream and Food, or the Princess Bust Developer.
Looking much like a toilet plunger, the Developer was available in 3.5- and 5-inch diameters and was guaranteed to get results.
An abbreviated chronology of the Sears catalog:
1896 – Spring and fall catalogs and first specialty catalogs appear.
1897 – First color section appears for shoes and buggies in black, brown, and red.
1925 – First retail store opens.
1927 – “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back” banner appears.
1928 – Craftsman tools introduced.
1929 – Kenmore laundry equipment introduced.
1930 – Mail-order baby chickens introduced.
1933 – First Christmas catalog.
1940 – “Easy payment plan” introduced (an early buy-on-credit program).
1968 – The phrase “wish book” first appears on Christmas catalog.
1993 – Big Book catalog was discontinued, replaced with specialty catalogs.
2007 – Sears brought back the Wish Book.
2009 – Sears introduced a new, interactive online version of the Holiday Wish Book at sears.com/wishbook
Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order business was vital to meeting the needs of town and country folks for over a century, and many of us have fond catalog memories to be recalled with this history.
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.