Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Cheapest Supply House on Earth

(from the Mar. 25, 1997, Lowell Tribune, page 16)

For several decades early in this century, people in the cities and on the farms watched for the mail man or the express wagon to deliver their precious orders from their favorite mail-order house. Some were disappointed when the order was not completely filled or when there was an error, but it still must have been a special time when packages or crates were opened to reveal the treasures inside.

Many catalogue companies were in business, with Sears, Roebuck and Company probably the best known one. The Sears catalogue proclaimed "Cheapest Supply House On Earth, Our Trade Reaches Around the World." And "The real value of the book is plainly shown in every price quotation."

The early Sears, Roebuck and Company order books should also be called "history books," since they provide a view of the way people lived at the turn of the century, a view as accurate as any provided by the great historians of the time.

The Sears catalogue of 1902 reveals in its offerings the dreams and needs of the people of the United States at a time when life was much simpler, and when vast numbers of people were moving westward.

A few will recall a special memory of their youth by looking at the pages; others will recall stories about the "good old days" told by parents and grandparents. Stories of the horse and buggy, the village blacksmith and the gaslight come to life with the illustrations. All ages would find the old catalogues full of history, endless information and entertainment.

Richard Warren Sears, the original founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company, was a master of psychology and provided in his catalogue a wealth of knowledge as well as hard-sell copy to help gain the attention of his readers and to keep them as loyal customers.

Sears wrote many detailed descriptions, such as those for watch movements, with a whole page describing the inner workings of a pocket watch. He wrote fascinating explanations of how gold-filled watches and rings were made.

Three whole pages were devoted to the farm windmill, very important at a time when electricity was still in its infancy.

Sears also editorialized throughout his catalogues -- on a page featuring telegraphy he recommended, "To those who are about to start in life, either ladies or gentlemen, there is nothing at the present time which offers better inducements than telegraphy. The smallest salaries paid are about $35 per month."

Sears, whose business career included some time as a railroad telegrapher, obviously had strong feelings about the profession. He went on to explain that many operators had risen to high positions and larger incomes elsewhere after starting in the field, himself included.

Looking through the thousands upon thousands of items offered in "the big book," the decline in value of the U.S. dollar is clearly evident. On one page there is a description of a fine piano, guaranteed for 25 years and priced at only $98.50; on another is a solid oak home pump organ for the low price of $22. Customers could order a drop-head sewing machine, guaranteed for 20 years priced at only $10.45, while gold-filled pocket watches ranged from six dollars to thirty five dollars, and a mantle clock with chimes was priced from $5 to $10.

Fine two-wheeled adult bicycles were $8.95, while surplus Civil War rifles, complete with bayonet and twenty rounds of ammunition, were sale priced at only $2.90.

One full page featured "The wonder of the buggy world, the leather top [horsedrawn] buggy, upholstered with genuine leather," priced at only $34.95. Saddles could be ordered for as low as $4.

The kinds of claims shown on the "medicine" pages lead to the passing of the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Among the items shown, there was a "sure cure for the tobacco habit," a cure for a bad complexion called "Arsenic Wafers," a secret liquor cure named "White Ribbon," Dr. Rose's obesity powders, and one ad that promised: "No matter what the cause may be or how severe your trouble is, Dr. Hammond's Nerve and Brain Pills will cure you."

Cast iron ornate heating stoves were shown on a special page, priced from $4.29 to $9.52; farm lanterns at 50¢ to $1; and walking plows showed an average price of $10.

Do you remember those combination writing desks and bookcases with the glass door? Many of them were listed at $10, while roll-top desks were only $11.95. A special was shown on a five-piece upholstered parlor set, which included a sofa, a rocker and three chairs, at a low price of $12.45. Many 100-piece dinnerware sets were priced at $9.

Even marble tombstones could be ordered at prices ranging from $5.10 to $26.70!

The latest styles in ladies' hats started at 99¢, with a Parisian style at $5.75. Clothing, hats and notions were all at low prices.

In 1902 Sears decided to charge 50¢ for his catalogue, with the excuse: "It is done that we may quote prices lower than ever before." He was trying to convince his customers that they were saving money by paying for his book, but he was not successful. He also sold some special cloth-bound catalogues with a brilliant red cover for $1. But soon the book was again offered to his customers free of charge. In spite of the 50¢ and $1 charge, 600,000 copies were distributed in the spring of 1902!

As transportation improved and better local shopping opportunities were available, there was a decline in the mail-order business from those large catalogues customers had used for decades.

Very few of the old catalogues have survived, for many of them were put to use in the "necessary building" in the back yard, some of them with a half moon cut into the door.

Last updated on December 13, 2001.

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