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Collectors Corner: The Sears Christmas Wish Book

Collectors Corner
Collectors Corner

To those of us who fondly remember family members seated around the kitchen table, eagerly leafing through the newest edition of Sears’ Christmas Wish Book, the recent sad announcement that the once venerable company has had to declare bankruptcy came as a reminder that the retail industry is in a state of radical change.

Sears, Roebuck, & Company was founded at a time when the majority of Americans lived in rural surroundings, far from the major urban centers of commerce. Unwilling or unable to endure the often long and arduous journey to the city, most people had to settle for the limited choices offered by the local general store.

That began to change with the advent of the mail-order catalog. Rural and small-town customers finally had access to the same quality merchandise available to their big-city brethren, and, just as importantly, at published prices.

Richard Warren Sears was not the first to launch a mail-order business – Tiffany’s Blue Book made its debut in the U.S. in 1845, the Royal Welsh Warehouse catalogue (Wales) in 1861, and Montgomery Ward of Chicago in 1872 – but his endeavors would prove to be one of the most successful.

A former railroad station agent based in Minnesota, Sears had begun selling merchandise on the side as a way to make a little extra money. A shipment of watches to a local jeweler in 1886 indirectly led to Sears’ first foray into the mail-order business when the shipment was initially rejected. Sears, after negotiations with the manufacturer, was able to sell all the watches to his fellow station agents at a nice profit and ordered more for resale as the R.W. Sears Watch Company. By 1888, Sears had moved to Chicago, picked up a partner, watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck, and issued his first mail-order catalog devoted to watches and jewelry.

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By the time the partners incorporated 1893 as Sears, Roebuck, & Company, they’d begun expanding the selection of merchandise. Bicycles, firearms, sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, and clothing were just some of the items that appeared within the covers of the quickly burgeoning catalog, which grew from 322 pages in 1894 to 532 pages the year after.

In 1896 the company introduced the first Spring and Fall general catalogs, adding hand-cranked washing machines, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even groceries to the myriad offerings. And, anticipating the rewards programs offered by today’s retailers, a Customer Profit Sharing program was begun in 1904 whereby certificates earned by purchases could be redeemed for selected merchandise.

Most importantly (to collectors), 1933 witnessed the release of the first Christmas catalog, renamed the Christmas Wish Book in 1968. Filled with detailed photographs and descriptions of the popular toys (and other gift items) of the day, collectors have been snatching up copies in good condition. Recent online auction results have shown that many are willing to pay up to $200+ for Christmas Wish Books, and even more for pre-1968 specimens, such as the 1952 edition that recently fetched $380 after multiple bids. Regular “Big Book” catalogs, especially older, rarer copies enjoy almost as much action with a 1937 edition recently selling for $301 and an 1899 issue garnering almost $350.

Some, today, are referring to Sears as the “Amazon of its time” but the comparison does not do justice to the venerable company when one considers that in its heyday, Sears not only carried general merchandise of the kind found in large department stores, (and electronic stores, automotive stores, and toy stores), but it created the iconic Kenmore, DieHard, and Craftsman brands, established Allstate Insurance (1931) and the Discover credit card (1985), and sold – through its catalogs – entire houses, as ready-to-assemble kits!

Sears not only dominated the mail-order business, but it dominated the brick-and-mortar side of retail as well. Within fifty years of opening its first store in Chicago in 1925, Sears had spread to, not only to all corners of the U.S., but to Central and South America, Canada, and parts of Europe. In 1974, the 110-story Sears Tower – the world’s tallest building at the time – opened in Chicago.

So what went wrong? Business analysts have offered a number of theories, but it appears that the company failed on two fronts: it did not adequately respond to the threat posed by big-box retailers like Walmart and Home Depot, and its efforts to transition to an online presence (while declining catalog sales led to the demise of the “Big Book” in 1993) proved to be less than successful.

Someday soon, all that may be left of Sears will be collectibles like the catalogs, and memories.

Would you like to learn more about this quintessential American company? Check out the following resources.

Books

The Big Store, by Donald R. Katz 

Houses by Mail, by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl  

Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew, by Gordon L. Weil  

Websites

Allstate History & Timeline – Official site. 

Diehard Legacy – Official site.

The History of the Discover Card (Chosen Payments) – Interesting article. 

The History of Sears Predicts Almost Everything Amazon Is Doing (The Atlantic) – A look at Sears from the opposite direction. 

Sears Archives – Official site is packed with information. 

Who Killed Sears? Fifty Years on the Road to Ruin (Investopedia) – One of the more insightful articles on the subject.

Michele Alice
Michele Alice
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more!

One thought on “Collectors Corner: The Sears Christmas Wish Book”

  1. As a kid 65 years ago I can remember with my 2 sisters getting all dressed up as our mother was going to take us to Sears. Sears had everything. Nice clerks and great service. We spent hours just looking as we really couldn’t do much but dream what it would be like to have those nice shoes or new dress.

    Flash forward to the 80’s. Still shopped at Sears but not as much as the stores started being dirtier than the basement in our house. Service was hard to find as they went to the kiosk for check out. Merchandise started that downward trend so common now adays before business start showing that they are struggling.

    Around 2005 or so they bought out KMart. KMart the junk store of America. After a few years Sears was no longer the clean well run store. Clothes looked like they could use a good cleaning and ironing. Looked like they were stored in a box for years and then just hung on a hanger. Clerks were rude and hard to find for anything. The downward slide continued. KMart look like an old surplus army store with stuff just piled up. No One really cared anymore. Customers started to leave and go to the shiny clean stores Hudson, Macy’s. Wal Mark. Sears just raised their prices and continued with their dirty stores crammed with items that were dirtier.

    Now Sears is Folding. The good old days of 50 or 60 years ago will not be coming back. Sears like so many others never learned that they needed to provide the products people were looking for. Not some just from some foreign country. People are looking for clean stores and great experiences. Sears failed at both. We for one family will keep the memories but are glad they are going out of business. Even the parking lots are cleaner now.

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