This week we continue our series on Victorian consumerism with a peek into the world of mail order commerce. Think Amazon invented the mail order megastore? Think again. Our Victorian ancestors had everything they could want at their fingertips, too, thanks to a now-familiar name.
American shoppers at the end of the 19th century could order practically anything they wanted—including many things they’d surely never realized they needed—from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogues.
Read More: Shop Like a Victorian
Reprint editions of the 1897 catalogue have been floating about since the mid-1960s, most recently in 2007 from Skyhorse Publishing:
Long out of print, used copies have gone for prohibitive prices, but I recently found a budget-friendly copy and snatched it up! I was hoping for a useful research tool for middle class life in the 1890s. What I found was a delightful journey into everyday miscellanea.
Sears and Roebuck offered everything necessary for the enjoyment of Modern Life, from housewares (and farmwares) to tools, to affordable clothing, to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, all in a handy, 700+ page volume. Let’s have a look at some of the offerings…
Everything for the cyclist:
Supplies for the Amateur and Professional Investigator:
And the enterprising criminal…
See? Everything you could want!
The business side of the ’97 Sears catalogue is familiar, too–there’s a search engine (aka an index), customer reviews, and FAQs that explain store policies, shipping rates, and how to order.
In a stroke of odd yet creative marketing, Sears also produced a 50-piece series of stereograph views showing the inner workings of the Chicago headquarters of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. at the end of the 19th century. I wound up with the set in a purchase of stereograph cards, and they’re a wonderful peek into the working life of women and men of the era, featuring everything from the order department and catalogue printing facility, to the employees’ cafeterias and the company infirmary.
The order-taking department. And you think Amazon’s servers might get overwhelmed once in a while!
I’ve not been able to track down the full text of the catalogue online, alas, but enterprising readers can find many more pages by Googling or searching Pinterest. It truly is an eye-opening and enjoyable glimpse inside everyday life of the late 19th century and the commonplace, mass-produced articles of all sort that filled American homes.
And don’t forget, Cold-Blooded Myrtle (Myrtle Hardcastle #3) takes place at the local village shop, with its Wonders from Across the Empire. I had a fun time stocking the store shelves with all sorts of period items. The sheer variety available at the time is mind-boggling!