Collectors Corner: Vintage Mail-Order Catalogs
By Michele Alice
Before there was Amazon, before there was eBay and the Internet, before there were shopping malls, there were mail-order catalogs.
Receiving a catalog in the mail was an event. It didn't matter if the recipient was a person living alone in an apartment or a family dwelling in a remote rural homestead, the delivery of a thick Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalog meant hours of "window shopping" while comfortably seated at the kitchen table or on the living room sofa. Oftentimes, a mail-order catalog was the only means of obtaining goods without a long and arduous trip to the nearest city.
Specialty catalogs, primarily of books, date to at least late 15th century Venice. In the U.S., Benjamin Franklin produced a catalog of books - with a mail-order guarantee! - in 1744, and Tiffany and Co. first issued their Blue Book catalogue (yes, that's how most people outside the U.S. spell it) in 1845. But it is Pryce Pryce-Jones of Great Britain who is credited with the introduction in 1861 of the modern mail-order merchandise catalog, followed by Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago in 1872. By the time Sears Roebuck and Co. issued their first general-merchandise catalog in 1894, the mail-order business was booming, and companies of all sorts were hawking their wares to an increasingly far-flung audience, compliments of the postal service.
Sears remained the most successful of the mail-order companies. Beginning in 1896 the company began printing Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter editions of its catalog that by 1906 was being referred to as "the Consumer's Bible". The first Christmas Book catalog appeared in 1933. Affectionately dubbed "the Wish Book" by customers (the name did not became official until 1968), the catalog was just one more reason for Sears' success at becoming the largest retailer in the United States, a distinction it held until 1989 when it was overtaken by Walmart.
By the 1990's, rising postal and shipping rates, the proliferation of malls, the increasingly rapid introduction and change-over of merchandise, and the growing acceptance of shopping on the Internet all combined to doom the large, heavy, general catalog. Specialty catalogs still abound - Lands' End, LL Bean, and Dell are but three that we regularly receive - but the days of the "Big Book" have long passed.
Except in the secondary markets.
Though some enjoy possessing tangible mementos of days gone by, most collectors today are primarily involved in acquiring catalogs that have some connection to their particular area of interest. That's why Christmas and toy catalogs are so popular. A collector of GI Joe might be willing to pay $52 for a not-in-mint-condition copy of Sears' 1964 Christmas catalog featuring 3 full pages of GI Joe action figure dolls and equipment. And a collector of Matchbox cars might bid $66.01 for a 1962 pocket catalogue. And somewhere out there might be a Disney collector willing to part with $401 for a 1930s Mickey Mouse Merchandise catalog. These are all actual final bids from recent online auctions, but you might be able to acquire fine specimens for far less if you keep an eagle eye out at yard and estate sales where old catalogs like the following (showing final bids) are often overlooked by the majority:
1930s Craftsman Tools $46.00; 1962 Fall/Winter Sears Roebuck $237.50; 1966 Sears Christmas Book $91.50; 1973 JC Penney Fall/Winter $19.99; Lot of 3 (1920, 1933, 1934) Stanley Tool catalogs $106.48; 1911 A. H. Fox Gun Co. catalog $1626.65.
Interested in discovering more about vintage catalogs? Check out the following resources, and Happy Hunting!
Collection: Christmas/Toy Catalogs - Companion site to WishbookWeb.com (below).
AH Fox Collectors Association Inc. - Informative directory includes images of catalog covers.
Flipping Through History: Online Retailers Owe Popularity and Tax Treatment to Mail Order Catalogs (Forbes) - Fascinating look at the history of mail order and the application of sales taxes.
National Mail Order Catalog Day - August 18/National Day Calendar - No, sorry, it's NOT a paid holiday.
Sears Archives - Company history, Wish Book and Big Book chronologies, more.
Seed Catalogs from Smithsonian Institution Libraries - Searchable database of 500 images of catalog covers from dozens of companies.
Toy Catalogs - Antique Toy Archive - Scanned images from a selection of non-Sears catalogs (F.A.O. Schwarz, Billy& Ruth, more).
Vintage Schwinn Catalogs 1899 to 1984 - Have an old Schwinn bike? This site includes history, serial numbers, more.
Why retailers still bother to print catalogs (Marketplace.org) - Who knew?
WishbookWeb.com - Site provides scanned images of almost four dozen Christmas and toy catalogs from Sears, Ward, Spiegel, more.
About the author:
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! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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