The Impact of the Sears & Roebuck Catalog

The 1949 Sears Christmas “Wish Book” catalog sold for $60 in August 2018.

It started with watches and moved on to, well, everything. After 132 years, Sears may soon disappear, but its history remains through its iconic collectibles.

A lot of chain retail stores have gone into bankruptcy or closed recently such as RadioShack, The Limited, Toys R Us, Kmart and others. None will be missed as much as Sears though, with its iconic doorstop-heavy mail order catalog reaching to 1000 pages, nearly 5 pounds or so, once upon a time. “Our trade reaches around the World,” was an early slogan.

And reach it did. Not only could you buy everything in your house from the Sears catalog, you could even buy the house! Sears was all pervasive, all encompassing, ever present and always expanding. Until it wasn’t. By the end of the 20th century, my Dad would be calling it “Sears and Go Back” once its products and service diminished. And we always wondered what ever happened to Roebuck?

The 1901-02 Sears catalog in a hardback edition that originally sold for $1 ($25 in 2018), sold recently for $250. Note that the condition is only fair, but that is expected for Sears catalogs and isn’t the first consideration for collectors.

Well, it all started when Richard Warren Sears had a mail order watch business in 1886 and called it R.W. Sears Watch Co. He met Alvah C. Roebuck, a watch repairman a year later, and they briefly worked together on the first mail order catalog in Chicago. Sears sold the business in 1889 and moved to Iowa. He returned to Chicago in 1892, opened another mail order catalog company selling watches and jewelry with Roebuck once again as A. C. Roebuck Watch Company. The next year, they changed the company name to the now iconic Sears, Roebuck and Co. and moved into the catalog business full time by 1893. That catalog became the “Consumers’ Bible” until the catalog business was discontinued in 1993, just short of the 100th anniversary.

And it is the mail order catalog that “…serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living,” according to the Sears Archives. It is also the most recognized retail collectible. It was the general mail order catalog where everything from work pants to flower pots to livestock, early automobiles, and even patent medicines that contained opium (yes, that opium) were readily available for shipping anywhere. Eventually it would become known as the “Big Book,” the all-purpose catalog.

Sears began the tradition of separate catalogs about 1896. This 1911 automobile catalog recently sold for $1,000.

But then there were specialty catalogs, too. Separate spring and summer catalogs began appearing in 1896 along with specialty catalogs for bicycles, buggies, paints, groceries, pianos, and the ubiquitous sewing machines. You could buy a kit to build your home from a specialty catalog from 1908 until about 1940; automobiles had their own catalog beginning in 1911 or so, and a Christmas catalog that started in 1933 became the “Wish Book” in 1968. Each with period advertising, photos, drawings and models that became quite famous in their own right such as Cheryl Tiegs, Gloria Swanson, Lauren Bacall, and others. Edgar Rice Burroughs of eventual “Tarzan” fame wrote product descriptions, and Norman Rockwell painted the covers of the 1927 and 1932 catalogs.

The catalogs have become more than just the interesting images and products of bygone eras. They are also a historical resource for collectors, genealogists, museums, historians, writers, documentaries, and sociologists, anyone interested in different periods of 20th century America. Nothing captures the day-to-day needs, wishes, and desires better than looking through the pages of the Sears catalogs.

In fact, one of the unexpected successes of the Sears catalog was the ability for anyone to order anything in the catalog. It didn’t matter what age you were, your ethnicity, your language, or even if you were an immigrant or not. You ordered and the post office delivered.

During the era of legal segregation and “Jim Crow” laws, for example, most prevalent in the American South before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the Sears catalog for “…black Americans, most of whom were rural farmers, access to goods on an equal basis as whites in faraway cities at reasonable prices was a godsend. And that’s what the catalog was,” says Historian Louis Hyman of Cornell University during an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

Norman Rockwell painted the cover of the 1932 Sears catalog and the 1927 catalog. This 1932 cover alone recently sold for $149.

Stories abound of children perusing with delight the annual Christmas Wish Book, marking pages for dolls, sleds, balls, mitts, skates and everyday wishes intended as instructions for Santa to fulfill. This was a godsend for all of Santa’s “helpers,” too.

Even during the war years, the Sears catalogs brought urban communities closer together by providing the right tools, materials, vegetable and fruit plants to more urban communities with specific, easy-to-read instructions that helped create individual Victory Gardens to help the war effort. This saved the canned vegetables and fruits for delivery to the fighting men and women throughout the battlefields on land and at sea.

So it seems that the Sears catalog was not just a consumer product, but it was also an economic leveler meaning that no matter where you fit in the economic life of the country, you had access to all your needs and wishes equally.

Oh, and what happened to Roebuck? Well, by the 1960s or so, Sear Roebuck & Co. simply became known as Sears. As it happens, Alva Curtis Roebuck was bought out of the partnership at his urging by 1895 for $75,000 (about $2 million today), and left to start his own ventures, including inventing a new typewriter and selling “motion picture” lanterns. The 1929 stock market crash hurt him financially and he returned to Sears by 1934 doing mostly publicity appearances. He died in 1948 in Illinois at 84 years old.

Roebuck outlived Richard Warren Sears, who died at the age of 50 in 1914 with a net worth of about $600 million in 2017 inflation adjusted dollars. Not bad for a guy who sold only watches once upon a time.

And now the great company known as Sears & Roebuck Co. is no more. Its legacy will have to continue as a memory and as a collectible.

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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