Remember Sears’ Wish Book? Us kids used to look forward to that thing all year long and when the Christmas season came around we would pore over it meticulously, looking with big eyes at the pages and pages of toys. There might have been some linens, or clothes, or electronics. or other grownup stuff in there too, but the toys were what mattered. Maybe, just maybe, Santa could read our minds and those toys would show up under the tree, or maybe not, but it was fun to dream, anyway. Sears catalogues have always been gripping reads, which is why I was glad to find a copy of their Fall 1909 Consumer’s Guide. But we’ll get to that.
The early history of the Sears company is a little bit complicated. Founded by Richard Sears, Sears, Roebuck and Company began in 1869 as a watch retailer in Minneapolis. It wasn’t something Sears set out to do; he was trying to unload the watches after buying them from a shipping company when a jeweler refused delivery. As Chicago was a bigger market, Sears moved there after a few years, hiring Alvah Roebuck as a jewelry repairman in 1887. A few more years went by, and Sears sold the business and started another one, also called Sears and Roebuck, which was officially founded in 1893. Phew.
Sears’ target market was rural areas that didn’t have much selection in their local general stores or easy access to larger retailers. Since it filled a pressing need, the business exploded, and in 1895 the company’s catalogue was five-hundred thirty-two pages. That year, the business made $750,000, or about $22M in today’s money. Only two years previously, Sears had brought in a measly $400,000, so this was a big jump. By the turn of the century Sears catalogues were ubiquitous, and in 1925 they opened their first brick-and-mortar store in its Chicago Merchandising Building.
The company’s business model shifted in the 1930s when sales at Sears’ physical stores started to surpass their catalogue sales, and at their peak they had over six hundred stores. Still, their catalogue sales kept bringing in robust revenues until the online shopping craze took over, and it was like the movie studios when TV became popular. Everyone was nervous, there were bad decisions made, and the company was hemmorhaging money. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, walking into a Sears store started feeling like being time warped back to the 1990s.
It was truly headscratching when Sears decided to merge with K-Mart, a company that was soon to be in equally dire straits. Now, of course, K-Mart doesn’t exist, and Sears has sold many of its iconic brands like Kenmore and Craftsman to other, more stable retailers such as Amazon. The Sears brand, for all intents and purposes, is dead.
The catalogues, when they can be found, are still around, usually in hefty quarto-sized facsimilies on local library shelves. I saw a reprint of Sears’ 1897 catalogue in my college library and I remember it was fascinating reading. This catalogue had everything from canned goods to farm equipment to clothes to beauty aids to books to musical instruments. It was the Amazon of the nineteenth century. When I discovered a pocket edition of the Fall 1909 catalogue in the bargain bin at a used bookstore, I snapped it up.
After I got it home, it didn’t take long to figure out why the catalogue had been in the bargain bin: The print was so tiny it was unreadable. Seriously, a catalogue that was the size of a cutting board isn’t meant to be squished down to the size of a piece of toast. Out came the reading glasses and some really good light. Perusal was slightly better, but only slightly. Still, what I could see was retail history gold, as well as advertising genius: The very first page is a large splashy offer for six free dining chairs with any purchase of fifty dollars or more.
Wily folks, those Sears people.
At the time the 1909 catalogue was published, Sears had a forty-acre complex with a power plant, printer’s shop, shoe shop, farm equipment foundry, wallpaper mill, paint factory, two creameries, camera factory, safe factory, and a stove factory. Whew. And those were just their onsite facilities–they also owned and operated almost a dozen factories of various kinds in other places. Yep, the Sears machine was humming nicely in 1909, and they were all about keeping it real.
Sears employees were ready to take orders of various kinds in any language, as long as the order was worth fifty cents or more. Customers were entitled to know where Sears’ products came from and how they worked, which is why the watch section, for instance, includes detailed information about the inner workings of the average pocket watch. And in case anyone wanted to try their hand at watch repair, Sears had equipment for that.
There’s a dizzying array of items offered in the catalogue, of course, including the kitchen sink, and they’re not really sectioned off or presented in any logical order. A selection of rosaries and crucifixes are sandwiched between the silverware and the clocks. The medicines follow the musical instruments and Gramaphones. Rocking chairs follow the cosmetics section. It’s all one big, happy family of Sears merchandise, and the reasoning behind the melee layout was obvious: The more a shopper took in while flipping to their desired section, the more they would potentially buy, and even if they didn’t buy right away, it put thoughts in the head.
One of the things that struck me about reading the 1909 catalogue is how much didn’t change between the Victorian period and the Edwardian. Sure, women’s corsets were longer, and bustles were out, and some rules were more relaxed, but by and large, not much was different. Men still used cutthroat razors and wore detachable collars. Fainting couches continued to be a thing, although the catalogue calls them “overstuffed couches,” and women were still eating arsenic wafers as a complexion cure, although the terminology was a little more subtle (the catalogue calls them “arsenous tabules”). The only thing I didn’t see were chamber pots, although I’m sure Sears sold those, too.
Besides that, there were some weird tchotchkes to be had. I saw a ring shaped like a skull, a wide selection of toupees and wigs, and an odd thingie that looked like a plunger but was supposed to give a woman larger bosoms. Two or three inches bigger. I’m guessing a lot of those survived because they couldn’t possibly have worked, but then again, plenty probably went into the trash can.
Some things never change.
Not everything was strange, though. The vast majority of the items were the usual clothes, tools, and appliances that Sears was always known for, and it was comforting to dig through them, even if they were from over a hundred years ago. I felt like a time traveler climbing around inside the heads of people I never met but who still were great influences on the way America works and the way retail has evolved as technology has changed.
It’s interesting that Sears, the former mail-order giant, couldn’t or wouldn’t translate that history into an online shopping experience that was at least comparable to Amazon. Target and Wal-Mart have both done it; in fact, Wal-Mart sells legit higher-end goods at deeply discounted prices. Pretty much any retailer today has to have some level of online business or they won’t make it. Even mom-and-pop specialty stores might have an Etsy shop or something on the side. It’s sad that Sears was unable to get on that bandwagon to the same extent, but it goes back to the old adage, “Adapt or perish.”
Our final Shamedown of 2019 is coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you then…