In the 1890s, the US Postal Service established rural free delivery, which brought packages and letters directly to previously isolated farm families. In response, businesses—most notably, Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Montgomery Ward—began mailing catalogs picturing their merchandise to potential customers across the country. The Sears, Roebuck catalog became as much a part of rural life as the Oliver turning plow and the Model T Ford.
The arrival of a new catalog was a noteworthy event. Though families might not have enough money to order all they wanted from the “wish book,” particularly during the Great Depression, looking at pictures of new clothes, furniture, appliances, hardware, patent medicine, plow tools, and toys provided a form of entertainment for rural residents in the days before radio, television, and in some cases electricity.
The catalogs included necessities but were especially important in offering large and small luxuries to rural people and bringing them new styles. Farm women learned what was in fashion and could buy fabric, find a dress they liked in the catalog, cut a pattern out of newspaper, and create a garment that looked much like the one featured in the catalog.
The Sears, Roebuck catalog even offered prefabricated homes that could be ordered and then assembled on-site. Many of these houses, which ranged in price from $1,584 for a six-room home to $5,164 for a home ten-room dwelling, remain in use today.
Even outdated catalogs had many uses. The pages could be torn out and used as backing when women pieced string quilts on a sewing machine: when the colorful quilt squares were completed, the paper was torn away and they were stitched together. Children could cut not only paper dolls of all ages from the catalogs but also furniture, dishes, and cooking utensils for the doll families to “use.” During the depression, paper from discarded catalogs was substituted for toilet tissue.
Catalogs could allow African Americans to shop without going deeper into debt—and sometimes facing other indignities—at plantation stores. Shopping through the mail might have seemed impersonal but was preferable to being poorly treated.
Catalog shopping has declined substantially in recent years as a result of a number of factors. The advent of automobiles and paved roads made cities and towns more accessible, while toll-free numbers and the Internet diminished the importance of the mail-order catalog to the general public and to those who live along rural mail routes. Although catalogs continue to exist, they are rapidly moving into that area of Americana that includes the Farmer’s Almanac, the autograph book, and movie magazines.
- Thomas D. Clark, Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store (1989)
- Lizabeth Cohen, Making A New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (1991)
- James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1991)
- Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830–1998 (1999)