I grew up in a time when the world of commerce was printed on the glossy pages of a mail order catalog. I can remember waiting for the spring Sears and Roebuck catalog to arrive. It meant, before long, the Montgomery Ward’s catalog would also be pushed into our mail box. And of course, the JC Penny’s catalog would soon be arriving. An entire world of commerce on the pages of catalogs delivered to our house in the country.
Then, in late September, the granddaddy of all dream catalogs would show up, the annual Christmas catalogs. Hundreds of pages displaying toys kids, all across America, wished to find Christmas morning. The companies promoted them as, Wish Books. Kids did not need to be told what they were for. They would study the pages, and if they saw something they really liked, the page would be marked with a dog ear. If parents found the clue to the special item, it might show up under the tree. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
The pages in catalogs were made from a slick smooth paper. Each page was printed with pictures of toys in real color! Being a kid from out the creek, the catalog delivered by the mailman each fall brought a bit of the big outside world to dream about. And best of all, it was FREE!
The first time I saw a picture of a woman in her underwear was on the pages of a Sears catalog. I accidentally opened it, and there on the slick pages was a half-dressed lady. I am sure I closed my eyes as quickly, as I did the catalog. Then I opened one eye, looked around to see if anyone had seen my shocking discovery. I am sure other kids peeked one more time into the pages. BUT NOT ME! BUT SOME KIDS DID! I heard a couple guys talking on the merry-go-round. One of them said, “The catalog lady only had a brassiere on, will my eyes fall out in Sunday school?” The next week he still had both eyes.
Catalogs have been around for a very long time. In fact, it is believed one of the first catalogs was published in the year, 1498. It was printed in Venice and advertised books the publisher had for sale in his book shop. In America, Ben Franklin is thought to have used printed catalogs to sell scientific instruments in the young colonial colonies.
The first true mail order catalog was published in Wales in 1848. A business man came upon the idea, that if people living in remote places could learn of his manufactured items in a printed catalog, it could increase his sales. It worked, and before long he was shipping to customers, by mail and trains, all across rural Wales.
In our country, Montgomery Ward was the first general merchandise catalog. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward saw an opportunity to bypass the retail stores and go directly to the customers. It started a revolution in sales that helped to grow his company. Then in 1888, a man named Richard Warren Sears started selling watches by a strange twist of circumstance by mail. It did not take long until his watch catalog grew and began selling everything from pots and pans, to bicycles.
People living in rural America often only had access to local general stores. Owners could set any price they wished on their products they sold. Some un-scrupless store owners used this to their advantage by increasing prices. When mail order catalogs came along, people living in rural communities were no longer tied to local merchandise. The prices in the catalog were clearly published and at a fair market value. Mail order catalogs, without realizing it, became an essential part in the growth of rural America.
Today, we hear about free trade agreements and how they affect what we buy, and prices we pay. Politicians would have you think this is a new problem for business. But, cutting the middle man and going straight to customers to reduce cost has been around for a long time. In the end, cost is what drives the consumer world. Just as it did in the early days of mail order catalogs.
Early in the last century, Sears even sold kits to build homes. Some of those kit houses are still around today, in a few communities. Bath tubs, dental chairs and even cars could be found and purchased from the pages of early catalogs.
But, times changed, and the once necessary catalogs have lost their popularity. Increased cost to produce and mail the catalogs became an ever increasing problem for a once important part of our culture. Sears stopped shipping catalogs in 1993. They still produce specialty catalogs, but no general merchandise books are issued today.
In 1982, the internet was at the beginning of a revolution in world wide access to information and its merchandise. Eleven years later, the publishing of general catalogs came to an end.
Going back in our country’s history, it is easy to see how a book printed to advertise merchandise became part of our country’s growth. Catalogs were also used to teach reading by lamp light in frontier homes. They were used to help elevate the height of a child at the Sunday dinner table. And before the commercial development of bathroom paper, many a catalog ended up hanging on an outhouse wall. You could shop for next year’s fashions and take care of business. The ultimate recyclable item. The pages of catalogs will forever be associated with long forgotten outhouses as a public service. I’ll even bet there are those of you reading this story that used a catalog for all, or some, of the purposes listed above.
Why my sudden fascination with catalogs? It is because today I no longer receive the Sears Wish books. My looking through a wish book is long in the past. The catalogs in my mail box these days has been reduced to yearly seed catalogs. You may not know, but one of first catalogs sold seeds to rural farmers. It was published in 1667.
Growing up, I remember the anticipation of looking forward to the arrival of catalogs. Today, I can find almost anything online, and with a few key strokes, order it. Catalogs were first started as a way to bypass the middle man in the sales of products to rural consumers.
Today, the shopping process has become so efficient, we can even bypass the wishing part of the process. Some call that progress. I believe we have just found a way to give up dreaming, as we look Through the Lens.