History of the Sears Catalog The 1943 Sears News Graphic wrote that the Sears catalog, “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” The roots of the Sears catalog are as old as the company. In 1888, Richard Sears first used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry. Under the banner “The R.W. Sears Watch Co.” Sears promised his customers that, “we warrant every American watch sold by us, with fair usage, an accurate time keeper for six years – during which time, under our written guarantee we are compelled to keep it in perfect order free of charge.” The time was right for mail order merchandise.
Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 also made distribution of the catalog economical. All this set the stage for the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. A master at slogans and catchy phrases, Richard Sears illustrated the cover of his 1894 catalog declaring it the “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone,” and the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth,” claiming that “Our trade reaches around the World.” Sears also knew the importance of keeping customers, boldly stating that “We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer.” He proudly included testimonials from satisfied customers and made every effort to assure the reader that Sears had the lowest prices and best values. This catalog expanded from watches and jewelry, offering merchandise such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing.
The 1895 catalog added eyeglasses, including a self-test for “old sight, near sight and astigmatism.” At this time Sears wrote nearly every line appearing in the catalogs drawing upon his personal experience using language and expressions that appealed to his target customers.
In 1896 Richard Sears added a spring and fall catalog and enlarged the size. He also extended an open invitation for all customers to visit the company’s Chicago headquarters. For the first time the company charged for the catalog. Sears tried to mitigate the 25-cent fee by promising to apply the fee to any orders over 10 dollars. Specialty catalogs now appeared covering such items as bicycles, books, clothing, groceries, pianos and organs, and sewing machines. Sears sold the earliest entertainment centers in the form of magic lanterns. These were either a single slide type, or a version called the chromatrope, which showed a succession of slides giving the viewers a motion picture feel.
Sears added a color section in 1897, advertising shoes in black, red and brown. New products included cloth bound books as cheap alternatives to hardbound books, and the Edison Graphophone Talking Machine. Incorporating a new trend, Sears added a “club order program” encouraging customers to combine their orders with friends or neighbors to share in discounts. A Builders Hardware and Material Section appeared; selling everything a customer needed to construct a building. Noting that all men are not equal in size and shape, Sears targeted the extra stout and extra large customer with men’s laundered shirts specifically made for them.
In 1898, he added more specialty catalogs including ones for photographic goods, talking machines, and mixed paints. In the general catalog a color section showed different buggies in red, green, brown, and black with gold or silver trim. He placed the Graphophone in an office setting, and the optigraph moving picture machine appeared. Reflecting current events, the lantern slide collection included shows on the Klondike gold fields, the destruction of the Maine and the Cuban war.
The 1899 catalog featured color images of carpets, furniture, and china. In the photographic supplies section Sears offered “Special Lecture Outfits” giving the purchaser projection equipment, a screen, advertising posters, admission tickets, and a printing outfit, everything an entrepreneur needed to set up a theater for paying customers. The optigraph moving picture equipment worked with either electricity or a system using a gas process to provide illumination. Limes were one of the ingredients used in these gas systems helping coin the phrase “in the lime light.”
The 1903 catalog included the commitment “Your money back if you are not satisfied,” and Richard Sears added a handwritten note to his customers. Always looking to cater to customer needs, Sears employed translators who could “read and write all languages.” He featured new items such as barber chairs, disc graphophones, and basketballs and goals (hoops). The next year he sold the Eveready searchlight and the babygate, and the company announced the opening of the Sears camera factory. The wig department added wigs for African-American men and women. To encourage repeat customers, Sears initiated a program called “customer profit sharing” giving the customer a one-dollar certificate for every dollar spent. By accumulating these certificates the customer could redeem them for specific items.
To get a hands on feel, the 1905 catalog featured full color and texture wallpaper samples, and a swatch of material used in men’s suits. Following this trend, the next year he added paint samples, and in 1908, the last year Richard Sears was associated with the company, he offered both wallpaper and paint color sample books to customers. In early November 1908, Richard Sears resigned his position at Sears. He guided the company for almost twenty years and now wanted to relax and begin enjoying his life. His legacy lasts in the words, descriptions, and product offerings found in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. In addition to recording the changing scene in America, the catalogs represent the work and efforts of thousands of Americans. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who later wrote the Tarzan series, worked for Sears. Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Gloria Swanson, Susan Dey, Cheryl Tiegs, and Stephanie Powers all appeared on the pages of Sears catalogs as models. The catalogs also featured Roy Rodgers, Ted Williams, Al Unser, and Gene Autry. Because the catalogs accurately reflect the styles and furnishings popular through the years, producers of Broadway shows and Hollywood movies frequently refer to them. Of particular interest to people studying the history of early fraternal organizations are the pages offering pins for such organizations as the freemasons and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. For sports or recreation historians the section on sporting goods provides a chronology for when items first appeared. Reflecting modern trends in retailing, the company decided to stop producing the general catalog in 1993.
While Sears no longer issues the Big Book Catalog, the company continues offering many specialty catalogs including the Christmas Wish Book, and catalogs for tools, auto accessories, home improvements, clothing, and even Barbie collectibles. Today Sears is moving into the electronic age by offering Sears Direct services. This gives the customer the opportunity to order items through the Shop at Home catalog concept featuring an on-line Wish Book, and an on-line site for Craftsman tools and parts.