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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Sears catalog was the Amazon of its day

Barry Evans
Barry Evans

Most of us sit around and occasionally wonder what we might do differently with our lives.  I have decided that if I were to start over that I would become a catalog mogul.  There has to be a bundle made just based on the number of catalogs that hit our mail box just about every day.  If a person were to handle things correctly, it is well within possibility that a proper facility with speedy printing presses could become the Amazon of catalogs.  Heck, it might even be possible to print some for Amazon itself.  OK, I don’t know if Amazon has any catalogs, but if they do, I would be ready!  I would even have the factory in the good old USA so I would be patriotic as well.  This sounds like a winning combination to me.  I might become enough of a mogul to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates – Lord knows they need somebody to take over!  It’s too bad that I am not really starting over. 

I realize that it is true that most catalogs today get thrown in the garbage, but the point is they still get printed in the hope that someone will look at them. In fact, I bet an educational organization on the Internet might be willing to start a course on how to read catalogs and find the best values.  They would probably need a catalog to mail to people telling them where to find the course. Quite obviously the opportunities for catalog printing are over the top. Just writing this column might get someone started in this business. Obviously, I am too old to start now, but whoever does start one might bring me in as a consultant.  I have a son and a granddaughter who work in marketing so it might be hidden in my genes even though I have never actually worked at marketing.  Well, perhaps a little because I used to market some of the cities where I was city manager to try to get businesses and industries to move there – but it wasn’t my main job.

I have had a long interest in catalogs as when I was a child everybody waited for the big Sears and Roebuck catalog to arrive. (I felt sorry for Roebuck as his name got dropped.  I feel for his poor family). That catalog was an event as it had all sorts of products in it.  We couldn’t afford most of them.  However, I still remember seeing pocket watches that had a silver dollar on the back, and the watch didn’t cost too much more than the dollar coin.  The more expensive ones had gold coins on the back, but even they had a very reasonable markup.  You could also buy belts which had the coins for a buckle.  The Montgomery Ward catalog was not bad either, but the Sears (and Roebuck) catalog was the best.  It was the Amazon of its day.  As you know some folks even bought their house from them.  It all came with all the parts clearly marked.  You just had to put it together which is why I would never have purchased one.  If I would have put it together, it would probably have been tilted, and The Blonde in the House would have had nothing to do with it.  That’s all moot though as we weren’t married when you could buy a house from a catalog.

I may have shortchanged Montgomery Ward.  While they were not the first to publish a catalog, they had the first mail order catalog for the general public.  They did that in 1872.  Sears and Roebuck didn’t really get rolling until 1893.  The oldest catalog still in existence is Hammacher Schlemmer which was first published in 1881.  In case you have been waiting, the first catalog was arranged by Aldus Plus Manutius in Venice in 1498.  Apparently, Mr. Manutius had received word that Columbus had found a new world in 1492 so he wanted to be ready.  Alas, it didn’t work out!

In any case with all this history combined with what shows up in my mailbox there is an obvious severe need for a catalog publishing giant. Please be my guest!

Villager Barry Evans is a columnist for Villages-News.com.


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