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The Sears Catalogue originated in what city?

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Sears House Designs of the Thirties


Proudly promoting itself as "the largest home building organization in the world," Sears, Roebuck and Company advertised in 1932 products in a handsome catalog that also displayed a full-size replica of Mount Vernon, created from Sears materials for a Paris exposition in 1932. At the heart of this now-rare publication were measured floor plans for 68 Sears homes. Over 200 illustration displayed interiors and exteriors for such handsome residences.

                                   
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The Great Price Maker
by Bob Brooke

 

Before there was Amazon.com, there was the Sears Catalogue. It was the “Great “Price Maker” that served as a mirror of its time, recording for future historians people’s habits, customs, desires, and modes of living. The roots of the Sears Catalogue are as old as the company.

Richard W. Sears, a railroad station agent in Minneapolis, Minnesota, founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company in 1886 to sell watches by mail order at $14 each. He relocated his business to Dearborn and Randolph Streets in Chicago in 1887, hired Alvah C. Roebuck to repair watches, and established a mail-order business for watches and jewelry. The company offered its first Catalogue the same year.

The time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these Catalogues the postage rate of one cent per pound.

In 1889 Sears sold his business, and a few years later founded, with Roebuck, another mail-order operation, which in 1893 came to be known as Sears, Roebuck and Company.

All this set the stage for the Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue. A master at slogans and catchy phrases, Richard Sears illustrated the cover of his 322-page 1894 Catalogue declaring it the "Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone," and the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth," claiming that "Our trade reaches around the World." Sears also knew the importance of keeping customers, boldly stating that "We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer." He proudly included testimonials from satisfied customers and made every effort to assure the reader that Sears had the lowest prices and best values.

This Catalogue expanded from watches and jewelry, offering a mind-boggling merchandise such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing. The 1895 Catalogue added eyeglasses, including a self-test for "old sight, near sight and astigmatism." At this time Sears wrote nearly every line appearing in the Catalogues drawing upon his personal experience using language and expressions that appealed to his target customers.

In 1895 Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy clothing manufacturer, bought out Roebuck’s interest and reorganized the mail-order business. Sears meanwhile wrote the company’s soon-to-be-famous Catalogues. The company grew tremendously by selling a range of merchandise at low prices to farms and villages that had no access to retail stores. The initiation of rural free delivery in 1896 and of parcel post in 1913 by the U.S. Postal Service enabled Sears to economically send its merchandise to even the most isolated customers.

In 1896 Richard Sears added a spring and fall Catalogue and enlarged its size. He also extended an open invitation for all customers to visit the company’s Chicago headquarters. For the first time the company charged for the Catalogue. Sears tried to mitigate the 25-cent fee by promising to apply the fee to any orders over 10 dollars. Specialty Catalogues now appeared covering such items as bicycles, books, clothing, groceries, pianos and organs, and sewing machines. Sears sold the earliest entertainment centers in the form of magic lanterns. These were either a single slide type, or a version called the chromatrope, which showed a succession of slides giving the viewers a motion picture feel.

Sears added a color section in 1897, advertising shoes in black, red and brown. New products included cloth bound books as cheap alternatives to hardbound books, and the Edison Graphophone Talking Machine. Incorporating a new trend, Sears added a "club order program" encouraging customers to combine their orders with friends or neighbors to share in discounts. A Builders Hardware and Material Section selling everything a customer needed to construct a building, soon appeared. Noting that all men are not equal in size and shape, Sears targeted the extra stout and extra large customer with men’s laundered shirts specifically made for them.

In 1898, he added more specialty catalogues including ones for photographic goods, talking machines, and mixed paints. In the general Catalogue a color section showed different buggies in red, green, brown, and black with gold or silver trim. He placed the Graphophone in an office setting, and the optigraph moving picture machine appeared. Reflecting current events, the lantern slide collection included shows on the Klondike gold fields, the destruction of the Maine and the Cuban war.

The 1899 Catalogue featured color images of carpets, furniture, and china. In the photographic supplies section Sears offered "Special Lecture Outfits" giving the purchaser projection equipment, a screen, advertising posters, admission tickets, and a printing outfit, everything an entrepreneur needed to set up a theater for paying customers. The optigraph moving picture equipment worked with either electricity or a system using a gas process to provide illumination. Limes were one of the ingredients used in these gas systems helping coin the phrase "in the lime light."

The 1903 Catalogue included the commitment "Your money back if you are not satisfied," and Richard Sears added a handwritten note to his customers. Always looking to cater to customer needs, Sears employed translators who could "read and write all languages." He featured new items such as barber chairs, disc graphophones, and basketballs and goals (hoops). The next year he sold the Eveready searchlight and the babygate, and the company announced the opening of the Sears camera factory. The wig department added wigs for African-American men and women. To encourage repeat customers, Sears initiated a program called "customer profit sharing" giving the customer a one-dollar certificate for every dollar spent. By accumulating these certificates the customer could redeem them for specific items.

To get a hands on feel, the 1905 Catalogue featured full color and texture wallpaper samples, and a swatch of material used in men’s suits. Following this trend, the next year he added paint samples, and in 1908, the last year Richard Sears was associated with the company, he offered both wallpaper and paint color sample books to customers.

Sears’ simple, warm and customer-service-centered approach helped it stand out among mail-order competitors like Montgomery Ward and Hammacher Schlemmer. When Sears first sold stock to the public in 1906, the company was worth some $40 million, with close to $50 million in annual sales and around 9,000 employees. That same year, it built a distribution complex in Chicago with some 3 million square feet of floor space.

Among the catalog giant’s astounding range of offerings were house kits, which the company began marking in 1908. The kits came in 447 different designs, from the grand “Magnolia,” which sold in the $5,000 range, to the humble and popular “Winona,” selling for $750 to just under $2,000. Sears advertised the kits with the promise that “We will furnish all the material to build this house. All the parts arrived precut and ready to assemble.

With the advent of the automobile, the mail-order boom slowed somewhat, but Sears managed to stay successful by expanding consumer credit with its “No Money Down” policy.

While traditional department stores, such as Marshall Field’s and Wanamaker’s, sold higher-end fashion, Sears had made its reputation selling less expensive but necessary items like socks, underwear, towels and bedding, which helped keep sales going even during the Great Depression.



Sears issued its first Christmas Catalogue in 1933, featuring such must-have items as a Mickey Mouse watch, a Lionel electric train set, a “Miss Pigtails” doll and live singing canaries. In the decades that followed, the Catalogue would be adorned with Christmas scenes, even as its pages swelled. By 1968, when it was officially renamed the “Wish Book,” the Catalogue boasted 225 pages of toys and 380 pages of gifts for adults, for a grand total of 605 pages.



In 1993, Sears announced it was closing its catalog division, bringing to an end a storied era of mail-order bargain-hunting and wish fulfillment that had begun nearly a century earlier.

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