The beginning of the mail order catalog

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Have you ever stopped to think about how people bought things before that large retail store was built in your town? People bought from catalogues, and there were two major catalog companies, Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck. Have you ever wondered how Sears and Roebuck got started?

Sears bears the name of Richard W. Sears, who was working as a freight agent for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad in 1886. A local jeweler gave him an unclaimed shipment of pocket watches, and rather than return them to the manufacturer, Sears sold them to agents down the line who then resold them at the retail level. He ordered and sold more watches and within six months made $5,000. He quit the railroad and founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis.

Business expanded so quickly that Sears moved to Chicago in 1887 to be in a more convenient communications and shipping center. Soon customers began to bring in watches for repairs. Since he knew nothing about fixing them, Sears hired Alvah Roebuck, a watch repairman from Indiana, in 1887. A shrewd and aggressive salesman, Sears undersold his competition by buying up discontinued lines from manufacturers and passing on the discounts to customers. At various times from 1888 to 1891, thinking himself bored with the business, Sears sold out to Roebuck but came back each time.

In 1888 the company published the first of its famous mail-order catalogs. It was 80 pages long and advertised watches and jewelry. Within two years the catalog grew to 322 pages, filled with clothes, jewelry and such durable goods as sewing machines, bicycles and even keyboard instruments. In 1894 the catalog cover proclaimed Sears was the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth.”

Sears is said to be the greatest business man that ever lived. Montgomery Ward was his competitor, so Sears published his catalog smaller than Montgomery Ward. Whenever one would place both catalogs on a table, they would naturally place the largest one on bottom and the smaller on the top, and this put the Sears and Roebuck catalog on top of the stack.

When you visit the Louisiana Treasures Museum, you will notice that I have price tags on many of the items. These prices came out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog dated 1897, which tells you the cost of the items in that time. Most of the information in this article came from research off the Internet with lots more to read about, a total of eight pages in all. If you have any old tools or items that bears the name Sears, it is probably valuable to a collector.

To schedule tours or hours of operations of Louisiana Treasures Museum contact me at 225-294-8352.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Treasures Museum.