A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 2006

The Reign of American Mail-Order Houses, 1870-1930

by: Alyssa Shirley Morein - Curator of Collections

1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog.
WRVM reference collection

Included in the reference collection of the White River Valley Museum are more than twenty facsimiles of antique mail-order catalogs, including those from Sears, Roebuck & Company, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penney. Time and time again, these hefty volumes have proved invaluable to our staff, helping us identify artifacts and providing a snapshot of a particular year’s fashions or technologies. But more than that, as the 1943 Sears News Graphic wrote, these catalogs present “a mirror of our times, recording… [the day’s] desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.”
Over the last few decades of the nineteenth century, America witnessed the birth of mass consumption, a phenomenon that continues to define our country to this day. Partly responsible for this phenomenon was the mail-order catalog industry, led by Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck, as well as the circumstances which assured these firms such great success.

1870s Midwestern America was composed largely of vast stretches of farmland. Towns (even sometimes neighbors) were relatively few and far between. To purchase goods, the typical farmer had to sacrifice many hours of valuable farming time to make the trip to town by horse-drawn buggy. The mail-order catalog offered him a way to purchase needed supplies right from home without such a sacrifice. In addition, these catalogs offered a far greater selection than the town store could, and even more compellingly, much lower prices. For their customers, it was an unbeatable combination.
Montgomery Ward pioneered the mail-order business in 1872, selling farming goods to members of the farmers’ organization, the Grange, with great and ever-increasing success. Soon after, ambitious entrepreneur and master marketer Richard W. Sears expanded upon this profitable idea, including in his catalog not just farm supplies but everything from clothing to home furnishings to groceries. (Montgomery Ward soon followed suit.) By 1900, Sears had surpassed its elder competitor, selling some $10 million worth of goods per year in its approximately 800-page catalog.

1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog.
WRVM reference collection

Boosting this already successful industry was the advent of rural free delivery of mail (in the 1890s) and then parcel post (in 1913). Thanks to these services, rural dwellers could simply put their order in the mail box and have their purchases in hand within a matter of days. As business boomed and profits increased, these catalogs expanded their size and selection in kind: by 1925 customers could purchase not only musical instruments, saddles, firearms, and sporting goods, but even pre-fabricated homes and automobiles by mail. And purchase they did—profits in that year were a staggering $243 million for Sears alone.
In the late 1920s, as towns grew, roads improved, and automobile ownership became more widespread, the dominance of mail-order companies began to decline rapidly. Shoppers simply could now access retail stores more easily. Sears and Montgomery Ward responded by opening stores all across the nation and by 1930 only about half of their sales came from catalog orders.
These mail-order companies had an important role in incorporating rural dwellers into American culture. They enabled rural farmers to wear the same clothes and enjoy the same home furnishings and conveniences as their more “sophisticated” urban counterparts. This contributed to the homogenization of American culture, and by fostering a democracy of goods whereby people of all socio-economic levels could afford the same accoutrements, these mass-selling houses contributed to the democratizing of people. Their almost half-century reign remains one of the most significant forces to have shaped American commerce and culture.