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Thursday, December 1, 2011

History of the Sears Catalog

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.





History of the Sears Catalog

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